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Where the auto industry still thrives

Sunday, June 20, 2010
Jun 20
10:23
AM ET

Posted by Jemele Hill

PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa -- It took five minutes for this city to become my favorite in South Africa.

I had gotten barely a couple of glimpses of Port Elizabeth when my driver informed me that the city was known as the "Detroit of South Africa."

As a Detroit native, I'm accustomed to people taking shots at my city, so I was preparing for a snide remark about the economy and crime rate while also wondering what the penalty might be for punching someone in Port Elizabeth.

But much to my surprise, the comparison to Detroit was meant in a completely positive manner. Port Elizabeth is considered the focal point for the automotive industry in South Africa.

"We are the Motor City, too," he said.

In the actual Detroit, the car industry's woes have played a major role in bottoming out the city and making it one of the poorest major cities in the United States.

It's a much different story in the "South African Detroit," where the auto industry is thriving. The latest statistics show that car sales have jumped 14 percent in South Africa, which has helped make Port Elizabeth a booming city.

General Motors South Africa is based in Port Elizabeth. Ford Motor Co. built a major engine plant here, and in 2007, the company announced it was investing 1.5 million rand (about $20 million U.S.) in expanding its operations in Port Elizabeth. Siemens (one of the world's largest electrical engineering and electronics companies), Goodyear and Volkswagen also all have significant operations in Port Elizabeth. In total, the auto industry is responsible for an estimated 12,000 jobs in the Eastern Cape province.

This was the first time in my travels that someone saw being compared to Detroit as something wonderful. And although I was relieved, it also made me a little sad. On the way to my hotel, I saw beautiful homes and spectacular views of Algoa Bay.

My city, while trying to recover, isn't anything like this. The driver saw Detroit as what it once was. He had no idea what it had become.

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