This paper, which is an initial attempt, reflects on the deterioration of Elliot into a ‘ghost’ town. The departure of businesses that provided jobs to the locals is one of the signs for the deterioration of the town. Lack of properly maintained infra-structure such as roads, street lights, drainage system, etc. also signify the deterioration of economy. Although a number of factors account for this decline, two factors are key in the collapse though. Closure of the rail-road, which has been the backbone of the commercial agricultural sector. Additionally, lack of or poor municipal services contribute to the deterioration. Importantly, the Sakhisizwe municipality fails to perform its constitutional mandate, that of facilitating economic development. The absence of a clear local economic development strategy is one of the signs of the municipality’s failure.

The next section provides a brief historical background of Elliot, followed by another section on the development of the Elliot magisterial district. The next section is on economic decline of the town and the district broadly. The last section, before the conclusion, is on the role of the municipality in the current developments in Elliot follows.

Brief historical background of Elliot

Origins of the town

Elliot emerged in 1885 out of a small village of white people that settled along the Slang River.[1] Tracing the origins of the group of white people shows that these were farmers that acquired the land through Chief Ngangelizwe in 1876. Seemingly, these were part of white people that had been showing interest in the land since 1862. However, the group could not move in until 1883 due to the presence of Africans in the area. Eventually, sixteen white farmers were allocated the land and developed a settlement called “The Slang River Settlement Farms”.[2] The group acquired the land from Chief Ngangelizwe when he opened up Maxongo’s Hoek to white people.[3] According to Wagenaar (1998), the chief also gave some foreigners land in the mouth of the Tsomo River. The allocation of land caused strained relations between the chief and the colonial administrator. By 1902, the population of Elliot stood at 905.

By 1905, the village developed into the rural farming town called Elliot.[4] Indigenous people call the town Khowa – signifying the mushrooms that grow in the area in summer.[5] The town is named after Sir Henry George Elliot (1826-1912), a veteran of the Crimean War. After a career spanning 25 years in the British army, Elliot retired and migrated to Natal in South Africa in 1870. In 1877, Prime Minister John Molteno persuaded Elliot to accept an invitation from Sir Henry Barkly to become the Resident Commissioner for Thembuland. He became the Chief Magistrate of the Transkeian Territories from 1891 to 1902 (Shaw, 2017). Elliot “lies in s grassy, spacious valley at the foot of the Drakensburg, towered by curtainlike buttresses” (Bulpin, 1983:525). From the beginning of 1885 to mid-1911 the town was controlled by the Elliot Village Management Board under the leadership of CW Chabaud.[6]

Elliot started with very few houses.[7] According to Sampson (Thembuland News, 27/10/1911), one would find “a house dotted here and there; the streets were swampy and undrained; where our beautiful park stands was a barren plain; we had only one or two stores, one hotel, a Post Office – a little raw brick building measuring about 10 x 12 feet. The Dutch Reformed Church was a pigmy (an old tin shanty) about 10 times as small as the present building; in fact, Elliot in those days looked like a decent sized farm”.[8] But, it attained a municipal status the town had significantly changed economically and socially by the time it attained municipal status. It had been “linked to the world by rail”, which marked the start of its economic development. Indeed, five stores had opened in the town.[9] Public buildings such as the magistrate’s offices, a jail, a park and several church buildings followed the installation of  railway line. By 1912, the first public school was built in the town. The school was formally opened on 15 July 1912.[10]

Between 1887 and 1900 twelve schools were opened in Elliot and the surrounding farm areas. For instance, on 1 April 1887 a classroom was built as a school for the white population in Elliot. The school was officially opened with 22 learners in July 1887. a number of In July 1887, another school was opened in Draaifontein Farm; in Gubenxa in January 1888; and in Glen Avon Farm in March 1889.

The town’s population been steadily increasing from 904 people in 1904[11] to about 7,250 by the 1970s (Bulpin, 1983). By 2004 the population stood at about 14,366.[12] As will be shown later, part of the population growth is linked to the influence of land reform in the Elliot District. Elliot saw a number of farms taken over by Africans through the land reform programme (Department of Land Affairs, 2004).

Since 2000 Cala and Elliot have constituted one new municipality called Sakhisizwe Municipality. Elliot and its surroundings have been divided into wards 1 and 2 of Sakhisizwe. Ward 1 is made up of the town, Hillview, Takalani, Old Location, the farms to the east and north-east of Elliot, as well as Gubenxa. Ward 2 consists of Vergenoeg, Polar Park, farms to the west and south-west, the Bestekraal farms, Zikhonkwane and Sifonondile.

Development of the town and the Elliot district

As in other rural towns, agriculture has been central in the development of Elliot. Indeed, Meyer et al. (2009:1) concur that “The agricultural sector is the backbone of an economy”. Similarly, Atkinson (2008) highlights land-based economic activities such as agriculture, mining, tourism as central in development of rural towns. As will be seen below, Elliot’s economic development is strongly linked to commercial agriculture.

However, the history of Elliot and the district also have strong colonial connections. The connections  emerge out of a series of colonial wars of conquest that culminated in occupation of Xhalanga. There was loss of land by indigenous people and gain of land by colonialists. The first loss of land was in 1858 when colonialists pushed Chief Sarhili out of Xhalanga; forcing him to settle in the Centane area. Sarhili’s departure enabled the colonialists to manipulate land allocation processes. They declared Xhalanga a vacant land and engineered the movement of four chiefs from the Glen Grey area to St Marks in Qamata, Southeyville and Xhalanga. The colonial authorities persuaded the chiefs in Glen Grey to move to Emigrant Thembuland (Theal, 1908; Ntsebeza, 2006). The hope was that the chiefs would move with their subjects out of Glen Grey (Ntsebeza, 2006:39). The aim was to move the indigenous people out of Glen Grey and replace them with white people. Glen Grey, which is closer to Queenstown, was earmarked for development of white commercial farming. Eventually, only four junior chiefs – Ndarhala, Matanzima, Gecelo and Stokwe – took the offer and moved out. But, these four senior chiefs remained behind: Zenzile of the amaNdungwane, Mpangele of the amaGcina, Gungubele of the amaTshatshu and Nonesi of the amaHala[13] (see also Ntsebeza, 2006). The plan of the colonial authorities of clearing Africans from the Glen Grey area was compromised.

Chief Gecelo and his followers settled in Xhalanga by 1865 (Theal, 1908; Ntsebeza, 2006; see also Ncapayi, 2013). Xhalanga’s boundaries stretched from the north of Southevville to the Drakensburg Mountains. The area also incorporated the Slang River valley. The boundaries changed after the souring of relations between Chief Gecelo and the colonialists. The relations changed with outbreak of the Gun War of 1880-1881. Chief Gecelo and the other chiefs who participated in the war against colonialists were defeated. The participation of Chief Gecelo in the war soured the relations. After the war the colonial administrators established the Thembuland Commission to consider the future of  Africans in the northern part of Xhalanga. The Commissioners recommended changes to the boundaries. Specifically, the Commissioners recommended that the change of the northern boundary line of Xhalanga from the Drakensburg Mountains further down to the Cala Road Railway Station. The implication of the recommensation is that the northern part towards the Drakensburg was separated from Xhalanga. This is the area that constitutes the Elliot district. To compensate for the reduction of Xhalanga, the Commssioners adjusted the southern boundary downwards to incorporate Southeyville into Xhalanga.

This new land arrangement affected landholders north of the boundary line. These African farmers were moved southwards to remain within the new Xhalanga boundary. Twenty-two strong African farmers were affected as they were relocated from the upper section of the area (Ntsebeza and Ncapayi, 2016). These are the African landholders Bundy (1979) wrote about in his book The Rise and Fall of the South African Peasantry as the progressive African farmers (Ncapayi, 2013).

Thus, although the Elliot district emerges after the recommendations of the Thembuland Commission, its origins are in 1881. By 1881, the colonial administrators had already decided to demarcate the northern part of Xhalanga into farms for lease to white farmers. Actually, CJ Levy, the Chief Magistrate of Cala, was instructed to demarcate the land in 1882. This was before the Thembuland Commission recommended the change of boundaries. Thus, the relocation of African farmers downwards was predetermined to clear the northern part of Xhalanga.

Indeed, there has always been pressure from white farmers to have access to land in the area. There had been a group of white farmers interested in the land in the area since 1862. The group could not gain access to the area because, as already indicated, there were Africans in the area. The interest of some white farmers was fulfilled in 1876, when Chief Ngangelizwe allocated land to 16 white farmers. The farmer settled along the Slang River and their settlement was called “The Slang River Settlement Farms”.[14]

The development of railway was instrumental in economic development of a country. For instance, the railway network in England, which started in the 1840s, was linked to the development of urban centre and movement of goods and people to such centres (Van Rensburg, 1996). Indeed, emergence of the railway service after the World War I has been central in the development of agriculture in countries such as the United States (Van Rensburg, 1996; Wallace, 1922). According to Wallace (ibid.:63) “(A)griculture and railroad transportation have developed together, each making the rapid extension of the other possible, and together they contributed to the rapid development of the country”. Van Rensburg (1996:1) concurs that the railway service was efficient for movement of “freight and passengers”. Likewise, railroad played an important role in the development of South Africa (Fourie and Herranz-Loncan, 2015).

Unlike in Europe and the United States, the development of the railway service was slow in South Africa. Railway service in South Africa was “the indirect product of the great Railway Boom in England” (Van Rensburg, 1996:1). However, the railway service had a slow start in South Africa due to low levels of industrialisation which meant limited demand for goods in urban areas. There was also opposition to the railway development from those who ran the wagon transportation service. According to Van Rensburg (ibid.) Anti Railway Conferences which met in Ladybrand, Dewetsdorp and Branfort, in 1887 opposed the railway because “(a) All railways are unnecessary; (b) they are detrimental to transport riding by wagon; (c) they are injurious to horse breeding; (d) they are likely to entail heavy land taxes and (e) they will encroach on property rights” (ibid.; 3). Nevertheless, the first railway line was laid between Cape Town and Wellington. Similarly, the first line laid down in Natal was between Durban and Pietermaritzburg in 1878 (Van Rensburg, 1996). The demand for reliable mass transportation service during World War II saw rapid development of the railway network in South Africa.

Similarly, railroad made communication and transportation a critical component of Elliot’s economy. Replacing the wago transport, the railway service improved rural transportation services in South Africa (SATS, ). This was particularly the case with the local farmers who made use of the railroad for transportation of their production. Collection points were established for farm produce from nearby farms for transportation to nearby and far flung towns. However, railway development in South Africa was along racial lines though in that areas with white population had more railway networks than areas occupied by African people. That is why areas such as Lesotho and the Transkei had less railway network (ibid.).

The steady decline of Elliot

Since the 1990s, Elliot has been experiencing a steady decline. The collapse of infrastructure such as the railway service, initially, and followed by other forms of infrastructure signify the decline. “Up until 31 March 1990 SATS (South African Transport Services) operated under the South Africa Services Act (Act No. 65 of 1981) (Van Rensburg, 1996:19). This means the railway service was regulated through the above-mentioned act. The deregulation of the railway service in South Africa in the early 1990s contributed to the economic decline (van der Mescht, 2006). The deregulation has followed by closure of the railway line in Elliot since the late 1990s. The closure left the commercial farming sector, which relied on the rail line for transportation its produce, without this critical infrastructure. Commercial agriculture, which has been the main economic driver of the town has been in decline. Indeed, there has been a drastic change in Elliot’s economic development direction. The district has seen a decline in the number of farming units during the early-1990s. The decline in farming units went hand-in-hand with growth in sizes of the farming units. This is the period generally associated with consolidation of farms in South Africa. This period is linked global economic trends that include trade liberalisation (Hornby and Cousins, 2016). In other words the opening up of South Africa’s economy to foreign investments and imports which impacted the economy of Elliot.

There are other factors accounting for the decline in agricultural activities in the Elliot district during the period under review. The district and its surroundings experienced a series of farm attacks. For instance, between 1991 and 2001 fifteen farmers were fatally attacked in the Elliot district. Because of close proximity to Cala and surrounding villages under the former Transkei homeland, white farmers in Elliot and neighbouring districts experienced frequent attacks. For instance, there were not less than six farm attacks in the Maclear area between 22 August and 6 October 1997 (Staff Reporter, 23 October, 1997).[15] The farm attacks in Maclear symbolise similar APLA-associated attacks across various provinces of South Africa. Significantly, the farm attacks contributed to the abandonment of farming by some white farmers abandoned farming; something that affected not only employment and the economy of Elliot. The 1990s was a period of heightened military operations by the African People’s Liberation Army (APLA). The broader context is that Sabelo Phama, APLA’s Chief Commander had declared in April 1993 the year to be The Year Of The Great Storm (Seroke, n.d.[16]; Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 1998).  Indeed, there was escalation in farm attacks associated with APLA operations from 66, in 1991, to 92 in 1994. The escalation of attacks was clearly linked to the call to action by the APLA Commander. The attacks influenced some white farmers to abandon farming. Their farms became part of the farms offered to the Department of Land Affairs (now Department of Rural Development and Land Reform) for land reform. Indeed, the department’s annual report shows the number of farms transferred through land reform (Department of Land Affairs, 2005). Thus, the Elliot district had, by 2002, “one of the largest concentrations of redistribution projects in the country, in particular LRAD projects…” (Aliber, 2006:6).

Financial difficulties associated with trade liberalisation also affected the Elliot district (Aliber et al., 2006). This period is referred to as the period of agricultural intensification. The totality of these developments meant that between 1988 and 1993, the Elliot district experienced a 16 per cent decline in farm employment (Aliber, 2006). From 1994 the sector underwent further changes as many white farmers moved out of farming. The period is also associated with introduction of the land reform programme with pieces of legislation such as the Extension of Tenure Act whose provisions threatened white farmers. The Sectoral Determination Act which set payment standards for farm workers as threatened white farmers. Indeed, some Africans acquired farms through the land reform programme.

However, the decline of the agriculture has negative effects on the town. There has been an exodus of farm workers and dwellers from the farms to informal settlements around Elliot. At the same time, implementation of the land reform programme displaced a number of farm workers and dwellers. The implementation of land reform unsettled some farm workers and dwellers, forcing them to leave the farms. In some instances, land reform beneficiaries actually refused to incorporate farm workers and dwellers as members of the project. This forced a lot of the farm workers and dwellers out of the farms to informal settlements in Elliot and the nearby town (CALUSA, 2002).

The establishment of Polar Park as a new informal settlement and informal settlements as extensions of existing townships (e.g. Ejonini in Old Location, Ekuthuleni in Vergenoeg) is an outcome of this development. The movement of form farm workers and dwellers into informal settlements around Elliot presented serious infrastructural challenges for Elliot. The aging and limited infrastructure barely copes with the increased demand for services. For instance, the water reservoir, created for a smaller population, barely copes with the increased demand for supply of water to the various settlements. Consequently, some areas struggle to get water supply; something that affects the ability of households in the affected areas in accessing water. Elliot’s crumbling infrastructure is reflected by the constant sewerage spillage between Vergenoeg and Takalani, next to Hillview and in the streets of Old Location; streets that have burst pipes, poorly maintained streets and a blocked drainage system. The bursting of water pipes damages the already poorly maintained streets. An example of this is the burst pipe in Lloyd Street that remained unattended for almost year. The water caused damage to the street. Similarly, the waterlogged street in-front of BKB has developed ditches that pose danger to vehicles. The sewerage spill and blocked drainage systems pose a serious health hazard to the residents. The drainage system fails to channel water to water runways during rainy seasons. Houses in low lying areas get flooded, as a result. Indeed, a number of houses were flooded during the heavy rains early-2019.[17] The health risk is that the sewerage spill can be carried into the houses during flooding.

A combination of the economic squeeze and the crumbling infrastructure has grave implications on the economy of Elliot. A number of businesses either left or closed in Elliot. The following are the businesses that either closed or left the town. Wares Wholesales and Metro Wholesales closed during the under review. A number of other stores have also closed from the beginning of the 21st Century. For example, Elliot used to have clothing stores such as Pages Store (Exact), Dunns, hardware stores such as Wade Sons and Sons, and Bev’s that have also closed down. The latest of the closures were Town Talk (furniture shop), OK Furnitures, Ellerines and Elliot Pharmacy. Obviously, the closure and or departure of a number of businesses contribute to unemployment in the town and Sakhisizwe broadly.

Indeed, Sakhisizwe has a high employment rate. Table 1 below tells the town’s unemployment story

Table 2: Unemployment Statistics in Sakhisizwe in %
Years Sakhisizwe Chris Hani Eastern Cape National
2006 33.2 32.7 27.8 25.8
2007 32.7 32 27.2 24.8
2008 31.1 30.6 26.6 23.6
2009 30.7 30.3 26.9 23.8
2010 30.6 30.4 27.7 24.8
2011 29.8 29.7 27.9 24.9
2012 31.5 31.2 28.7 25
2013 32.2 32 29.4 25.1
2014 31.7 31.4 29.4 25.1
2015 30.8 30.7 29.1 25.5
2016 30.8 30.8 29.3 26.3

  Source: IHS Markit Regional eXplorer version 1156

The unemployment rate is the official narrow definition of the unemployment rate which does not consider those people who have given up looking for work. Certainly, using the broad definition would give a bigger unemployment rate. Critically, the above development has destabilising effect on the families of farm workers and dwellers. The move of the families to informal settlements means they get into new and unfamiliar environment. The social network of the families, which also serve as a support structure, get broken down. Thus, the high unemployment rate of Sakhisizwe poses serious challenges for the town (Eastern Cape Socio-Economic Consultative Council. 2017).

There has been an escalation of criminal acts in Elliot as one of the outcomes of the above situation. Records on Elliot reflect an upward trend in criminal acts in the town. Table 3[18] below illustrates the point.


Table 3: Crime statistics in Elliot from 2009 to 2018
Years Murder Sexual offences Assault Robbery Burglary
2009 12 27 162 3 78
2010 11 31 121 8 77
2011 12 29 113 8 68
2012 12 39 116 17 74
2013 18 33 106 13 79
2014 24 51 92 26 78
2015 18 41 125 17 75
2016 22 45 119 29 90
2017 26 43 89 27 63
2018 32 39 86 17 95

Th statistics on burglary is for household burglaries, which is higher than burglary on businesses. The combination of a crumbling infrastructure and escalating crime discourages business owners from staying in Elliot.

The departure of businesses is not only an economic challenge. There are social challenges as well. The departure of businesses indicates lack of development of an area. Lack of development limits the area chances of keeping and or attracting skills. There is ample evidence that poor municipalities struggle to attract skilled people, hence the low skills base in rural municipalities. Similarly, underdeveloped areas experience brain drain – which is outmigration of skilled people to developed areas.

Up to now, the focus has been on external factors that have effect on the state of Elliot. The role of the municipality has hardly been discussed. The next section focuses on the municipality’s role social and economic development of communities.

Role of the municipality in development of communities and concluding remarks

Municipalities have a critical role in the development of communities. Section 152(c) enjoins municipalities “to promote social and economic development” (Act 108). Flowing from this, the White Paper on Local Government defines a developmental local government as “local government committed to working with citizens and groups within the community to find sustainable ways to meet their social, economic and material needs and improve the quality of their lives” (Depart. for Provincial and Constitutional Development, 1998: n.n.). Furthermore, Section 11(3)(b) gives the municipality the responsibility of “promoting and undertaking development”. Moreover, sub-section (3)(l) expects municipalities to promote a safe and healthy environment.

Yet, the discussion and evidence in the above section show the failure of the municipality to fulfil both Constitutional mandate and what legislation points out to. The municipality has failed to facilitate social and economic development of Elliot. Specifically, it failed to curb the economic collapse of the town through improvement of infra-structure of the town. The government has developed a mechanism to deal with situations such as the one in Elliot. Through the National Urban Renewal Programme, the government has dealt with development problems in the past. The Motherwell Urban Renewal and Alexander Urban Renewal the examples of what the government can do. The programme’s aim is to “attain socially cohesive and stable rural communities with viable institutions, sustainable economies and universal access to social amenities, able to attract and retain skilled and knowledgeable people who are equipped to contribute to growth and development” (Department of Provincial and Local Government, 2001:2).

Towards conclusion

The above points show that it is possible for a municipality to turn around the situation highlighted above. An open-minded and non-sectarian leadership at both the municipal and community level is needed to deal with such a situation. To reach such leadership would have to engage with honesty and transparency in its dealings with communities and civil society structures. Unfortunately, our recent experience shows that the current leadership in the municipality has not been able to meet the above requirement. There is, nonetheless, still a hope that sense will get into the leadership’s heads to realise the need to change.

Civil society needs `to intensify its campaign to claim the space the legislation provides in the municipality. Members of civil society need to stand above their narrow interests of protecting their party positions in favour of being concerned about the higher goal of serving humanity. Therefore, the challenge is on representatives of civil society to grab the opportunity and strive for the higher goal – serving humanity.

[1]   See Elliot, Eastern Cape. https://www.revolvy.com/page/Elliot%2C-Eastern-Cape. Accessed on 31/7/2019.

[2]   See article titled “Die ontstaan van die dorp en distrik” in Elliot 1885 – 1985. Elliot Municipal Library

[3]       Transkei. Archive 2. https://www.sahistory.org.za/places/transkei. Accessed 19/8/2019.

[4]   See article titled “Die ontstaan van die dorp en distrik” in Elliot 1885 – 1985. Elliot Municipal Library

[5]   See https://pathfinda.com/en/elliot. Accessed 31/7/2019.

[6]   See Elliot, Tembuland. https://www.sahistory.org.za/places/elliot-tembuland. Accessed 31/7/2019.

[7]   ibid.

[8]   Reflections of Sampson in Thembuland News, 27/10/1911, quoted in report titled Elliot 1885 – 1985. Elliot Library.

[9]   ibid.

[10] See article titled “Onderwys van die dorp en distrik” in Elliot 1885-1985.

[11] See Elliot, Tembuland. https://www.sahistory.org.za/places/elliot-tembuland. Accessed 31/7/2019.

[12] See Elliot (Eastern Cape). https://www.citypopulation.de/php/southafrica-easterncape.php?cityid=285. Accessed 31/7/2019.

[13]          Report and proceedings of the Tembuland Commission with Appendices and Maps. Vol. 1. (G. 66-`83). UCT Library, Government Publications Section.

[14] See article titled “Die ontstaan van die dorp en distrik” in publication on Elliot 1885-1985 in the Elliot Municipal Library.

[15] Staff Reporter. Apla blamed for farm murders. Mail and Guardian, 23 August 1997.

[16] Jaki Seroke. Memorialising APLA Forces in The Year of the Great Storm! Https://www.mayihlomenews.co.za. Accessed 29/09/2019.

[17] Author’s personal notes from meetings of the Elliot Residents Association. He is the member of the Residents Association and participates in its activities.

[18] The table on crime statistics is developed by the author compiled from Crime Stats Simplified. See http://www.crimestatssa.com/precinct.php?id=807. Accessed 7/8/2019.


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