When heavy rains struck Durban for five days in September 1987, resulting in flash floods, 506 people ended up dying. Buildings collapsed, at least 14 bridges were washed away and cemeteries were destroyed. Sinkholes appeared all over Durban. The floods damaged over 30 000 houses and left more than 50 000 people homeless. The total damage to infrastructure was estimated at R7 billion.
The Easter weekend floods of 2019 also brought untold suffering to the city and surrounding areas. They resulted in 85 people dying, thousands of homes damaged and hundreds of residents displaced, especially those living in shack settlements. They also brought down bridges and destroyed roads and other vital infrastructure. Again, the cost of the damage ran into billions.
The latest floods will go down in history as one of the most severe natural disasters to strike the region. By 20 April, the number of people killed stood at 448, but it was expected to go up as 63 people who had been reported missing were still not found and many others remained unaccounted for. The total cost of all the damage is still being quantified, but KwaZulu-Natal premier Sihle Zikalala said the roads alone would cost at least R5.6 billion to fix.
The South African Weather Service said the amount of rain that fell in Durban on Monday 11 April was equal to that “normally associated with tropical cyclones”. Mmeli Sokhela, 39, can attest to the destructive consequences. He was still dazed and in a state of disbelief days after the floods.
Sokhela was sleeping in his rented room in Clermont that Monday night when the walls of the United Methodist Church next door came down and collapsed his home. He and his four children between the ages of 12 and 16 were trapped in the rubble. He could not see or hear them.
“I called out their names but it was all silence. I called out to neighbours to come and help us, but there was all sorts of rubble on top of us – building blocks, the furniture, trusses, the zinc roof – and the rising volume of water,” he said.
It took his neighbours more than two hours to extricate him from the rubble. He was still hopeful that, perhaps, his children had somehow survived. “But sadly I lost all four of them,” said a grief-stricken Sokhela.
Thulani Gumede, 45, a resident of Inanda Glebe, lost everything as devastating flood waters swept through the neighbourhood. Gone is his two-room shack with all of his family’s belongings, including their identity documents and birth certificates. His wife and three children survived by the skin of their teeth.
The Gumedes are one of scores of families who are now sheltering in the local hall not knowing what the future holds. “I couldn’t believe that I became homeless overnight. Even the pants I’m wearing were donated by the people in the hall. I lost everything,” said Gumede, a factory worker.
He and his family had gone to bed early that Monday night because there was no electricity in the area. “Around midnight I noticed that it was raining cats and dogs. A few minutes later I saw water flooding all over my house and I called my wife and children saying that we should run for help.”
Gumede was living in Inanda during the 1987 floods, but this disaster is far worse, he said. “We only see these things, like tsunamis, on television screens happening in other countries. But this time around it was happening all around us. Unbelievable.”
A few kilometres away in Ntuzuma, residents said they could not believe it when they saw bodies floating around from the cemetery in Lindelani. “Some of the bodies were from fresh graves and there were also bones everywhere,” said Gugu Ndlovu, 29, who lives near the cemetery. “Some coffins were floating and there were blankets all over the place. The smell was unbearable.”
It took emergency and municipality workers more than a day to clear everything out.
Mthoko Khuzwayo, 45, a resident of Burlington shack settlement, praised God that he is still alive. He lives in an outbuilding next to the Umhlatuzana River. “On Monday I saw water flooding into my room, rising up. I decided to tie ropes that connected my room to the main house. That’s how it survived. All neighbouring shacks were washed away,” said Khuzwayo.
Others in the neighbourhood were not so lucky. Five children from one family were killed while sleeping when their home, near the railway line linking Durban to Johannesburg, collapsed and they were buried in mud and debris.
Bodies still found
Emergency workers are still working hard to recover the bodies of missing persons. An emergency worker in the Pinetown area said corpses, many of them unidentified, were piling up at mortuaries.
“In my 24 years of working here, we have never worked so hard, we have never picked up so many bodies,” said the worker, who asked not to be named as he is not allowed to talk to the media. “The phones have been ringing non-stop and community members want us to pick bodies, multiple ones, at a time.”
According to the shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, the most devastated shack settlements among their branches were eNkanini, Cato Crest, eKhenana, Ekukhanyeni, Zamokuhle, Foreman Road, Kennedy Road, Briardene, eKuphumeleleni, KwaMamsuthu in Quarry Road, Lindelani and Barcelona 2. In a statement, it said “in all these settlements people’s homes were washed away”.
“Every disaster in Durban – from the hard lockdown to the riots, fires and floods – hits the poor the hardest,” Abahlali added. “Natural disasters become entwined with political disasters, often resulting in devastation for the poor.
“Since 2005 we have been saying that the conditions under which we are forced to live in a repressive society are dangerous as well as undignified. The floods in KwaZulu-Natal have devastated many shack settlements, and some rural areas too. Some people were rescued as the rivers burst their banks but many lives have been lost.”