Rehabilitating the ‘Ghost on the Coast’

(Port Elizabeth) – Tired of leaving the destiny of the Eastern Cape’s largest city to chance, a movement billed as “a private good citizen initiative” is quietly gathering momentum, with one common purpose: to return Port Elizabeth to its former glory.
Good News: Photo: Dean Cothill / @deancothill on Instagram

Good News: Port Elizabeth, nicknamed the Ghost on the Coast, is being thrown a lifeline by a private good citizen initiative.  Photo: Dean Cothill / @deancothill on Instagram (also responsible for cropped feature image: Hobie Beach Pier)


Once dubbed “the ghost on the coast”, the city’s fortunes have been mixed in recent years thanks in part to the global financial market upheaval (the city is trying to diversify from its strong automotive sector reliance), as well as political instability (several municipal managers and mayors have come and gone with alarming frequency).

Tired of the “should-bes” and “could-bes”, a movement billed as “a private good citizen initiative” is quietly gathering momentum, with one common purpose: to make the city great once more.

With vocal supporters including well-known ad man Mike Abel –  chief executive partner and co-founder of M&C Saatchi Abel –  and Carte Blanche’s Derek Watts, the non-profit initiative is an attempt to crystallise a unifying vision for the coastal city.


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An apolitical movement, Project Nelson Mandela Bay aims to work in support of municipal authorities and existing structures to achieve its aims.

This, says Watts, who visited the city last year to talk about the project, is the most productive way forward for the movement.

“Working on Carte Blanche stories has made it very clear for me that change has to come from the residents and corporate sector of any city to really make a difference,” he said. “I have been involved in the Project Nelson Mandela Bay initiative and they have certainly started out on the right path.”

The initiative is headed by a steering committee, the members of which have full-time jobs but who give freely of their time for the future of the city. They include marketing manager of the city’s urban renewal arm, the Mandela Bay Development Agency (MBDA), Luvuyo Bangazi, public relations doyenne Michelle Brown, businessman Kobus Gerber, private banker Robyn Watermeyer and project coordinator Manusha Reddy.

The project is organised into several focus areas including the Smart City iGEMS, Safe City, Connected City, Clean City, Madiba Meander and 12 Active Months teams, each of which reports to a team leader as they drive their specific objectives (see sidebar).

Project NMB as a whole was inspired by a “Put PE on the map” series of talks given by Abel, a former resident, to municipal and business leaders back in 2012.

“I believe big business and civil society will build South Africa. Capable people need to contribute to building their communities, their cities, their country and not be reliant on government,” said Abel.

Abel has an abiding personal passion for the city, having been born, schooled and undertaken tertiary studies here. He and his family remain regular visitors to the city, where his wife Sara’s parents still live.

“I believe deeply in the city, its people, values and business potential,” said the 49-year-old, who described PE as having “the bones of a great city”. “It offers enormous opportunity and an incredible and accessible lifestyle but it desperately needs a new central big idea to unlock its growth. Much like the automotive industry did for the city at the time.”

He said the coastal centre had an excellent infrastructure and a strong track record as an industrial player and exporter, with a good harbour, deepwater port and decent labour force.

“PE has excellent schools and a university, wonderful beaches, a warm ocean and malaria-free Big Five game reserves rivalling Kruger just minutes away. And it’s very affordably priced.”

According to Abel, the city is a crucible of creative talent and intellectual capital but sorely needs an incentive scheme as part of a welcome back strategy to encourage successful Port Elizabethans to return, start businesses and build a powerful entrepreneurial culture.

He himself got his start in advertising when he established a small PE-based company specialising in taxi-back promotions.

Abel, whose current agency is the visionary force behind the global Street Store pop-up charity shop phenomenon, said all the city lacked was a unifying strategy.

He said a good starting point was building on the metro brand and its link to the world’s most famous statesman.

“It’s about leveraging Madiba locally, nationally and internationally – and all that he stood for.”

In line with this, Abel said the city had the potential to become a global destination for the value traveller should the mooted Lady Liberty-style Madiba statue and adjacent waterfront Freedom Precinct come to fruition.

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