Gavin McLachlan

Associate Professor

Department of Architecture

University of Port Elizabeth

Port Elizabeth

South Africa





Globalization has effected cities in Southern Africa in many ways.  The case study of Port Elizabeth is used to chart some of these changes.   Globalization is effecting the cities economy, its social and cultural life, its political realization and its physical form. The implications for cities in Southern Africa include economic pressure favouring coastal cities, the hastening demise of traditional life, the loosening of the grip of the State and the growth of competitive urban regions.




Globalization has had a deep effect on cities all over the world, not the least in South Africa where the isolation of the apartheid years has given way to a much more open society and economy.  Businesses, cities and regions that flourished in the years of isolation are in decline.  Communities that were previously isolated are seeing their once cherished values challenged, especially by the young who perceive that the old ways will not do.  New social and urban tensions worsened in Southern Africa by the twin scourge of crime and HIV Aids, accentuate the differences between rich and poor.  The mass urbanization of the African rural poor makes these contrasts all too apparent in the new melting pots of South Africa’s cities.


This paper will explore the effect of the many forces of globalization on the Port Elizabeth Metropolitan Area and will attempt to draw conclusions relevant to other Southern African cities.   




The Port Elizabeth Metropolitan Area is located in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa.  The Eastern Cape Province is geographically the largest of the nine provinces of South Africa.  It is located along the South-East coast of South Africa and is bordered to the North West by the highlands of Lesotho.  The total population is around 5million people, of whom the vast majority are members of the Xhosa ethnic group.  The province is largely rural, with a high percentage of women and children, as many men are migrant workers on South Africa’s mines.  The population of the Eastern Cape Province have an average per capita annual income of US $ 550 (i), the second lowest in South Africa.  The rate of HIV infection is estimated to be around 1 in 9 of the population.  There are a number of towns and cities in the province, of which the three principal cities are Umtata, East London and Port Elizabeth.  Port Elizabeth, which is located in Algoa Bay in the Western part of the province, is the largest urban centre in the province, and is the fifth largest in the country. 






The Port Elizabeth Metropolitan Area has a population of around one and a half million people and is a commercial industrial port with a substantial motor assembly component. The Port Elizabeth Metropolitan Area is the focus of urbanization in the province, and has average per capita income levels that are five times that of the rest of the Province.  The city has a mixed population that is around fifteen percent white, twenty-five percent “Coloured”, two percent Asian Indian, and fifty-eight percent black (ii).


Port Elizabeth as Archi City


The historic core of the Metropolitan area is what remains of a late eighteenth and nineteenth century European colonial port.  Focused on the harbour and based on walking distances the old city grew first on the narrow plateaux along the shore North West of the harbour and then spread up the escarpment and across the higher plateaux too.  The Archi City consisted mostly of small residential properties, but with some carefully crafted spaces and imposing public buildings (iii).  The traditions of architectural design and place making are the dominant tools in the forming of the Archi City (iv).



Figure 1: The historical core of  Port Elizabeth as Archi City.


Port Elizabeth as Cine City


Through the twentieth century the city grew outwards with new residential and industrial areas and infra-structure.  Different racial groups were separated spatially, firstly in the manner of the colonial city and then in the manner of the apartheid city (v).  This occurred in the form of a large development of townships and suburbs.  The harbour was expanded considerably and new industrial parks also grew up on the North Western edge of the city.  The automobile and auto component industry grew to prominence in the city.  Roads in particular came to dominate the city.  Planners and engineers developed the Cine City (vi) with its flows of goods, vehicles and people.



Figure 2: Suburban development and growth show Port Elizabeth as Cine City.


Port Elizabeth as Tele City


From the later nineteen eighties the growth of the city and its economy and communities was further influenced by the impact of globalization, much accentuated after 1990 with the abandonment of apartheid and the opening up of the country to the global economy.  Since this time decentralizing forces have dominated the complex sprawl of the city.  Decentralised shopping malls, footloose industrial developments, a seemingly endless residential patchwork sprawl, and the ubiquitous paraphernalia of the global economy (Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Shell, etc) dominate the city.  The contrast between the wealth of the glittering shopping malls and new office complexes, and the poverty of the squatter camps creates a tension between those able to access the global economy with its ATM’s, cell phones and swipe cards, and those shut out by their culture and poverty.  Increasingly wealthy suburbs and upmarket shopping malls become the secured private domains of the privileged. The rapidly expanding cyberspace of telecommunications and the economy that it brings in its wake is the catalyst to this great change to a Tele City form (vii).



Figure 3: Port Elizabeth as Tele City (source: Comprehensive Urban Plan)






The South African economy, and its cities, were sheltered from the full impact of globalization by the sanctions and isolation of the apartheid era, which ended in 1990 with the release of Nelson Mandala and the scrapping of racially discriminatory legislation.  The isolation of the apartheid era was not just confined to economic sanctions, but affected all aspects of life in the country.  Social and cultural life was also isolated, and racial communities that were separated were encouraged to live within the parameters of their own cultural worldview.  The opening up of the country to the world economy has lead to growth in some sectors and to decline in others.  The mass urbanization of rural people and the much greater degree of racial and cultural integration that has occurred in South Africa’s cities has also had the effect of weakening the hold of traditional cultures.  Everyone wants a television set, a motor car, a cellphone and a hamburger.


The impact of globalization on the Port Elizabeth Metropolitan Area has been felt in many spheres of the cities life, including its economic, social, cultural and political life and physical form (viii).




Figure 4: High-rises in the city centre use the language of international architecture.


Economic Globalization


Port Elizabeth is the centre of the automobile industry in South Africa and Volkswagen, General Motors and Ford all have plants in the city, and in addition there are many auto component manufacturers in the city.  Globalization has forced these manufacturers to become world competitive and, in many cases, to play a role in the global strategy of their parent companies.  Volkswagen SA manufactures an enormous number of right-hand drive Golf IV’s for export,  General Motors (known locally as the Delta Motor Corporation) exports a number of components both to Opel in Germany and Isuzu in Japan, the Ford engine plant assembles 1300cc engines used in all such Ford vehicles worldwide.   At the same time vehicle imports have expanded enormously and have placed great pressure on local manufacturers both in terms of market share and of quality (ix).


Central to the cities economy is the harbour that has changed considerably over the past fifteen years in order to accommodate new shipping technologies such as containerisation.  Trends in world shipping are such that the old harbour is becoming obsolete and a new deep-water harbour is being built at Coega on the Northern edge of the city.  The new harbour will allow the development of a dedicated export processing zone as well as new industries in a way that is not possible with the old harbour (x).


The city is also the centre of various agricultural export undertakings, including hides and skins, deciduous fruit and citrus fruit.  These exports are constantly subject to the fluctuations in global consumerism.  Here there is nowhere to hide from the competitive nature of these markets.


Tourism in the city has also grown, with the near proximity of the Addo National Park and the fact that the region is malaria free, helping to foster a growing industry (xi).



Figure 5: The cities tourism focus is the recreation potential of the cities beaches.


Globalization has increased the competitive pressures on the various sectors of the economy in the city, especially those that have to compete in this global market.  As a coastal city, however, the city has been able to benefit to some extent from export-orientated industries.



Social Globalization


The alienation produced by the ever-increasing wave of new technologies is isolating a generation of older workers who have the most difficulty in coping with the new ways.  Retrenchment of workers, including middle and upper management, that was previously unheard of, is now commonplace.  An additional pressure are the affirmative action policies and laws aimed at drawing black people into the economy.  The welfare state, never fully developed in South Africa, continues to struggle with the increasing mass of poor people while resources are diminishing.  The state schooling and health systems likewise are under increasing pressure to deliver from a base of inadequate resources.  Labour laws in South Africa are such that those few in formal employment are fairly well treated and are somewhat protected from the competitiveness of the economy by the power of the Unions.  Pressure from the global economy, however, is building up to privatise and to reduce worker protection (xii).  The South African economy is by far the strongest in Southern Africa and from within South Africa’s own poor rural communities, and from all over the sub-continent, economic migrants are streaming into South Africa’s cities in search of improvement in their lives.  In Port Elizabeth Congolese, Angolans, Ghanaians, Nigerians, Somalis, Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and others have appeared all in the last ten years.  At the same time bright, skilled (usually young) South Africans are leaving to find employment in the rich Northern Hemisphere economies.


In Port Elizabeth globalization has fostered the breakdown of traditional society and is creating a new order in which only money counts and who has access to information and the latest technologies.



Cultural Globalization


The internationalised imagery of globalization in the form of television, American films, music, sport and global products are an ever-present reality in South Africa’s cities, including Port Elizabeth.  Cultural globalization with has as its temple the upmarket shopping mall.  In Port Elizabeth the six malls that cater to this group are pervaded with the paraphernalia of global wealth.  Satellite television brings into any home or bar 164 channels dominated by global sports, entertainment and news.  The cities Southern beach front with its casino and plethora of restaurants and bars is both unique in its specifics, but international in its generalities.  Deep-rooted ethnic traditions such as the Xhosa Abaquetha (the male circumcision “rite of passage” ritual) is not only difficult to stage in an urban context, but is increasingly neglected and even abused by local communities (xiii). The reaction are the chauvinistic movements of the Africanists (the PAC, AZAPO and the Rastafarians) and the whites (the AWB) who rally their disaffected supporters to repeated calls for a return to the true values of past generations.  The apartheid years have left Port Elizabeth, along with other South African cities, with a mosaic of different racial and ethnic areas, but also with substantial economic differences between these areas.



Figure 6:  Restaurants and bars on the Southern Beach Front.


Cultural globalization has weakened the hold of traditional culture everywhere both by making it obsolete and by the magnetic strength of the appeal of global goods and culture.  What would you rather ride, a bicycle or a BMW?



Political Globalization


Politically cities in South Africa, including Port Elizabeth, are subject to the same global forces that effect cities elsewhere.  Multi-national companies that will simply leave if conditions don’t suit them.  Regional, national and international media that both convey the messages of the global economy and expose the limits within which the politicians work.  The reduction of exchange control has opened the doors to South Africans wanting to invest abroad.  In Port Elizabeth it is estimated that around US $ 3million is leaving the local economy every week headed for the offshore markets (xiv).  An increasing number of flows of information and capital are beyond the control of the state.  Services that were previously the exclusive preserve of the state and under the control of politicians are increasingly being provided privately.  In Port Elizabeth private security companies, private clinics and private colleges are all booming and providing services that the state cannot afford to provide neither financially nor politically.


In Port Elizabeth political globalization is characterised by the decreasing power of the state and the increasing power of the global networks and economy.  At the same time, those with means, are increasingly taking care of their own needs in the fields of security, health and education and other areas that were the traditional preserve of the state.



Physical Globalization


The deconcentration of the Port Elizabeth Metropolitan Area is the most obvious impact of the forces of globaslization.  What was a provincial city is becoming a small urban region and will eventually have a population of around three-and-a-half million who will live in a multiple centered sprawl covering around 625 square kilometres (xv).  Linked to the sprawl is the development of decentralised shopping malls, office parks and industrial estates, as well as the spreading of work places into the residential environment.  Many small businesses are now home based, and many people work from their motor cars, using cellphones and laptops to stay in touch with their colleagues and clients.  The central core of the city, especially the old CBD, have declined, a development hastened by the movement of poor people into the centre.



Figure 7: Private transport driving decentralization of the city.


Port Elizabeth is rapidly changing under the influence of the global economy into a spread out polycentric urban region.






The Port Elizabeth Metropolitan Area in many ways typifies the impact of globalization on South African cities.  This impact can be summed up by the following points:


1.      The global economy has generated enormous pressure on the economy of the South African city by forcing businesses to become globally competitive.  Coastal cities may benefit more from this trend than South Africa’s inland cities.

2.      Social and cultural globalization have increased the pressure on traditional societies and culture making even more difficult the process of urbanization of the African rural poor.

3.      Globalization has diminished the ability of politicians to respond to the pressures experienced by the people and has made it easier for those with means to live outside the immediate control of the State.

4.      The physical impact of globalization has been to hasten the growth of South Africa’s largest cities (Johannesburg/Pretoria, Durban/Pietermaritzburg, Cape Town/Stellenbosch, and Port Elizabeth/Uitenhage) into urban regions.






  1. Information supplied by the Department of Trade and Industries, Port Elizabeth, May 2001.
  2. Data from the 1996 census supplied by the City Engineer’s Department, Port Elizabeth Municipality, May 2001.
  3. See discussion of the architecture of Central Port Elizabeth in “Towards a Sustainable Conservation Plan for Central Port Elizabeth” by G McLachlan, UPE, 1997.
  4. See discussion of urban form in Cedric Price “Mean Time” Montreal, 1999; and Luuk Boelens “About Eggs, Mental Maps and Public Space” TAN 1, 1997.
  5. See Christopher, A. J.  “Apartheid Planning in South Africa: The Case of Port Elizabeth”, Geographical Journal, Vol 153 No 2, July 1987.     
  6. See discussion of urban form in Cedric Price “Mean Time” Montreal, 1999; and Luuk Boelens “About Eggs, Mental Maps and Public Space” TAN 1, 1997.
  7. Ibid.
  8. See Maurits Schaafsma “Globalization: Making Contact”, TAN1, 1997.
  9. Information supplied by the Port Elizabeth Regional Chamber of Industries, May 2001.
  10. Information supplied by Portnet, May 2001.
  11. Information supplied by Tourism PE, May 2001.
  12. See “Financial Mail” 5 to 9 February, 2001.
  13. See G McLachlan  “Land for the Abaquetha: The Adaptation of the Male Circumcision Ritual of the Southern Nguni to the Realities of Urbanization”.  International Conference on “Making Sacred Places”, the Built Form and Culture Group, University of Cincinati, Cincinati, USA, October 1997.
  14. Estimate based on information from the Banking Sector, Port Elizabeth, January 2001.
  15. See City of Port Elizabeth, “First Comprehensive Urban Plan: Draft” May 1999.