At least 70 people have died and thousands have been displaced by torrential rain in Durban this week. Those living in precarious circumstances have been hit the hardest.
In eKukhanyeni near Mariannhill, west of Durban, the sound of hammering as residents rebuilt their storm-damaged homes competed with the ANC campaign song Phakama Ramaphosa being sung in eTshelimnyama about 5km away, where supporters were expecting a visit from President Cyril Ramaphosa.
One resident said the ruling party was giving people blankets. She claimed ignorance about the presence of Ramaphosa, saying the local councillor would have spread the word if the president was in the area.
“It’s blankets for the ANC people,” said Boysie Hlongwa from shack dweller’s movement Abahlali baseMjondolo.
Abahlali occupied the land in eKukhanyeni and fought bitter battles with the municipality, in and out of court, under the leadership of S’fiso Ngcobo, who was assassinated last year. The area is not affiliated to any political party and is neglected by the local councillor, even in times of need, said Hlongwa.
‘I almost died’
Amid the competing sound of hammer and song, eKukhanyeni resident Lungisani Mbanjwa, 31, told the story of how he nearly died when he was swept away by floodwater in the early hours of Monday.
He was coming back from work and when he tried to cross the bridge, he slipped into the mud and was swept under the bridge by the powerful Umhlatuzana River.
He battled with the rapids for almost five minutes. “At the time, it was still dark. I could not see the trees properly to be able to hold on,” said Mbanjwa, who works as a security guard at a warehouse in Orange Grove. He tried to hold on to a tree branch, but it broke. Fortunately, his second attempt was successful. He managed to hold on to that branch for almost three hours before receiving help.
“I saw a man taking photos of the overflowing … river and I cried out for help.” The man called for help. “Mam’ uNgidi said she called the police, but they never came.”
Hlongwa and other local men who knew how to swim didn’t wait for a rescue team to arrive. They jumped into the river and threw Mbanjwa a rope to hold on to, which is how he got out of the river, explained MaNgidi.
“I would be dead by now, had they not helped me,” said Mbanjwa, who lives alone. “Luckily the backpack stayed on my back, but the beanie and the boots … were washed off by the river. My phone was still in my pocket, but useless, because of water.”
Not too far from where Mbanjwa was pulled out of the river, residents rescued another man by the name of Rasta who was in a similar predicament.
Nowhere to build but the river bank
Metres away from where Mbanjwa and Rasta were rescued, at the lower end of eKukhanyeni, houses flooded and some along the river bank collapsed. Nontando Shabalala, 38, was among those affected.
Shabalala wasn’t able to cover her rent of R2 400 a month in Clare Estate as well as school fees for her two daughters and transport to and from work on her salary of around R4 000. So, she decided to move to eKukhanyeni to reduce her living costs.
“My problem is that I was renting,” said Shabalala, who works as a security guard. She built herself a two-bedroom house with aluminium windows near a river bank in the space of two months.
A mud house next door to Shabalala’s home collapsed completely because of the floods. “That night, my daughters were working on their school projects and my neighbours left around 11pm, when the rain got stronger.”
The swollen river and rising waters behind her house caused serious damage.
Shabalala told New Frame that there were no places to build homes and that flooding of this magnitude was unthinkable when she decided to settle in the area. “I reconciled myself with the possibility of flooding, but what I did not anticipate was the floods coming from behind.”
The floodwater damaged food, clothes, two laptops that Shabalala’s children used for school and her partner Scelo Mtshali’s tools.
Shabalala has sent her daughters to KwaNdengezi to stay with her in-laws until she is confident the storms are over.
Government houses falling apart
In eKuphumeleleni, a settlement close to Chatsworth, an RDP house collapsed while family members were inside. Ntozakhe Cele, 38, the owner of the house, told New Frame that there were three of them inside the house when it collapsed.
“We heard a raucous noise. And, moments after, the wall fell on my child. My sister screamed out for help. My sister and I managed to remove the wall over Sabelo,” explained Cele.
Her house was at the bottom of the settlement, close to the Phumphele River. The furniture she had bought with her earnings as a domestic worker was destroyed. All Cele’s electrical appliances – television, fridge and stove – and kitchen cupboards, couches and bedding were damaged.
Cele, her sister and son are staying temporarily with her brother.
‘Not enough relief’
“Sizophuma sibhekephi? (Where are we going to go?)” asked Silindile Khumalo, 36. She and her family now live in fear that the cracked walls of their RDP house might fall on them. The mother of five said, “I hold my one-year-old child tight when I sleep.”
“We hardly sleep, imibhede yethu ibolile (our beds are rotten) … The house is literally without a roof and when we try to climb on the roof to repair the damaged part, the wall shakes.
“When it rains, everyone holds their basin. Silala simile (we sleep on our feet),” loosely meaning, we have anxious sleep, “because of the rain coming through the roof.”
Khumalo told New Frame that they rely on neighbours for blankets and sometimes, when they are feeling unsafe, they seek refuge. They have not received any aid from the local government.
Residents claimed the local councillor visited some, like the Cele family, but not the Khumalo family to assess the damage.
Mbalentle Khumalo, 34, Silindile Khumalo’s neighbour, was asleep with her four children when floodwater broke through the wall, leaving a hole that cost her R60 to get fixed. Her one-room shack is now smaller as a result of mud sliding into her house and pushing the walls inwards.