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The West Bank Location

Shanty town
1880 to 1890

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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In September 1880, the municipality began a round for removals. On the East Bank, the Seaside Location -- which had been there for only two years -- was torn down and two new locations established: the Wesleyan Location and Newsam's Town.

It was decided to move the West Bank Location as well. It had been on its existing site for 23 years under minimal supervision, and reports claimed that it was in an appalling condition.

The District Surgeon described it as in a "very filthy condition", with many huts "mere bundles of old rags" and the inhabitants "drunken whores of the lowest cast [sic]". Prostitution was rife, he said, and venereal disease common.

He recommended that all the huts be reconstructed of "proper material" and the lots be properly marked out. The residents should then be held responsible for the cleanliness of their houses and grounds.

Two councillors were appointed for an independent inspection and they reported that the place was in "a hopeless state of confusion", with huts built in any fashion and the residents a mixture of amaXhosa, "Hottentots, Fingoes, American Negroes -- and, they were sorry to say, White men".

The Christian part of the location was hardly any better than the heathen section. They recommended, therefore, that the location be destroyed and then laid out properly.

The question of Whites in the location appalled the Town Council. They were living with "coloured women" but, because the huts belonged to these women, nothing could be done. Whites, after all, could not be prevented from visiting there.

It was decided to move the location but the resolution was not carried out for some years. In the meantime, the Council turned its attention to greater organisation of the locations generally.

In December 1883, however, the Council started a new wave of resettlement. The first to go was the Wesleyan Location -- after just three years in existence. The West Bank Location was next, and a month's notice was given to the residents.

The decision, however, was most inopportune because East London was then at the trough of what contemporaries termed the "Great Depression": a severe economic recession that gripped South Africa between 1883 and 1886.

There was also understandable confusion because the site chosen was on the road to the pontoon -- where the Mercedes Benz factory stands today -- and near the site of the original Xhosa village. Since this was close to the town, there was always the danger of another relocation in the not-too-distant future.

The Council, however, refused to reconsider but, because of the hard times which placed many location residents in a "very impoverished condition", it did not force the issue. Instead, it simply refused permission for any new huts to be built on the old site.

The whole question then fell virtually into abeyance for the next four years -- when pressure was again put on the location residents to move.

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