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The East Bank locations

Years of decline
1890 to 1918

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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The East Bank Location was established in 1890. It was the start of a period of prosperity for East London and yet, despite the economic boom, the Black community lagged financially behind the White sector. Indeed, wages rose substantially only during the South African War, a full decade later.

The boom years did, however, see a dramatic increase in population. From a mere 1,939 residents in 1894, the population peaked at 12,111 in 1905 at the start of the post-war recession, a growth of 624 percent.

During that period, however, no new extensions were made to the locations and the construction of huts was unable to keep pace with the population explosion. It was therefore not uncommon to find huts which had been designed for only six people now accommodating as many as 15.

"Give us a place to sleep and we will willingly pay for it," had become the general cry throughout the location.

The residents had to build their own houses, being given a plot 10 metres square at a rent of two shillings per month -- and an additional 4s. per month if the hut were to accommodate lodgers.

The rapid urbanization also meant that the traditional round thatched huts were gradually replaced by square shacks of wood and iron. These were built as inexpensively as possible, making use of material scrounged from the town -- but they were draughty and leaky, and ideal breeding places for disease.

There is no doubt that the location community suffered badly during the post-Boer War recession as the Town Council concentrated on alleviating distress amongst its White population by replacing Black labour with White, despite the fact that it was more expensive to do so.

Hundreds of men were then forced to leave the port, causing a 27 percent decrease in population. The recession also took its toll on the Council's determination to keep the locations as models of discipline and hygiene.

The local Izwi Labantu newspaper compared the locations to the town where there were "superior buildings, good streets, and fine sea-frontage". In the locations, the editor wrote, the people were "pigging it" in ramshackle tin shanties, with no incentive to improve their homes.

Indeed, there was only a "semblance of cleanliness" in the locations -- "a mere surface show" -- while the surrounds were "sodden and rotten with percolations of decaying animal matter".

There were no lights, no recreation grounds, no fencing, no street repairs, no "application of the common laws of hygiene to the health of the people" and no public schools. The most prosperous thing, the editor wrote, was the cemetery, "in a bad condition and rapidly filling up".

Despite repeated appeals for action, however, the Town Council did absolutely nothing. Indeed, it was only in 1914 that a reasonable sum was at last placed on the estimates to provide electric lighting, street construction and the building of a slop-water drain.

The funds set aside nevertheless came nowhere near the amount collected by the municipality by means of location taxes, and it was only in 1918 that any of the improvements were actually carried out.

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