Around midmorning on Thursday 25 April, three families who had lost eight family members between them in a mudslide behind Westcliff Secondary School on Crimby Road in Chatsworth, Durban, were combing through what used to be their home, looking for essential documents and other items belonging to their loved ones. As the sky was clear with no sign of rain, it gave them a chance to search.
White and red candles had been placed on the muddy remains of the houses. A local resident who had helped retrieve the bodies, Raji Singh, 43, told New Frame that the candles were placed by those attending the previous night’s prayer vigil in memory of the dead.
The death toll, which includes 13 people who died when a church wall collapsed in Empangeni because of the heavy rain and flooding, had risen to 85, according to officials in Kwazulu-Natal.
The real heroes
“I think the real heroes of the day was the community. Before rescue units, Metro (Durban Metro Police), SAPS (South African Police Service), the community took the initiative of arranging spades, digging up the rubble, and the first five bodies were retrieved by the community,” said senior reverent of the AFM Miracle Tabernacle, Pastor Jonathan Naidoo.
Singh painted a bleak picture of their attempts to retrieve the bodies when the rain was at its peak.
“SAPS guys were here. They told us we were not allowed to go near the building because the building wasn’t stable, it was almost collapsing,” said Singh. They insisted and later, when the rain stopped, the rescue team joined in and they uncovered more bodies.
“Having seen what we saw, I have had sleepless nights over this past couple of days, because every time I put my head in the pillow [I see] the images of bodies that we were pulling out. I am still very hurt about it, very, very hurt.”
Sifting through the mud, Mpilo Zama found an identity document that belonged to his sister, Philisiwe Zama, who died with her son, Siphosethu.
According to Naidoo, the two were the last to be pulled from the rubble and were “quite an effort to retrieve”.
“The last two bodies were a mother of 39 years together with her five-year-old son. She was all crouched as if she was in prayer. And she was holding on to her five-year-old son. And that just broke my heart, to see that scene. You could see she was very protective of her son,” said Naidoo.
Zama said Siphosethu was the young family comedian. “He made everyone around him laugh,” he said, smiling at the recollection of his nephew.
Philisiwe worked at Westcliff Secondary School, but later resigned because of a spiritual calling and became uMthandazi (a consulting prophet and spiritual healer).
“After our father passed away, she was the primary breadwinner, besesithembele kuyena (she was our last hope). None of us at home have stable jobs,” said Zama.
Philisiwe loved her son and family and was building them a big house in Illovu, said Zama. Compounding the tragic loss of their sister and nephew, the Zama family had buried their maternal grandmother only a week earlier.
The brother and uncle of five family members who died, Mthandeni Duma, also found some documents in plastic files while searching through the mud. Thembelihle Beauty Duma, 37, died along with her three children, Nobuhle, 20, Andile, 13, and Milintando. She worked at a fast-food outlet in Chatsworth.
Nonhlahla was visiting her aunt and cousins for the Easter holidays. She was planning to submit her CV to potential employers while in Durban and leaves behind a two-year-old son, Kwethaba.
Duma described his sister as a shy, quiet person who loved her children. Nobuhle was working and studying part-time, and Andile and Milintando were still in school.
Singh said his daughter was deeply hurt by the incident. She and Nobuhle went to school together and were elected as class prefects.
Duma, shaking his head, said he often hears of tragedies but that this “was unthinkable”. The family and residents of Mzinto are still shaken and in disbelief at one family losing five members at the same time.
The family and friends of Rujabu Juma, who also died in the mudslide, stood off to the right of the rubble.
“When we found him, he was without clothes. You could see that he came back from work tired and took a shower and slept,” said Juma’s uncle, Moses Lazalo.
The Juma family lives in Malawi and were not able to say a last goodbye to their son and husband because of financial difficulties, said Lazalo.
On Wednesday 24 April, President Cyril Ramaphosa said to the families in Westcliff: “We are with you. Our hearts are with you. We are here physically as all levels of government to say to the family and the affected communities that we will support you.”
When asked if the government would help with funeral arrangements, Lazalo said: “I can’t say, but the president was here yesterday. Because we are not from here, we are from another country, I don’t know what [the government will] do. For now, we want to give thanks to the church and pastor [Naidoo].”
The Zama and Duma family funerals are expected to be held on 4 or 5 May. Naidoo said the funeral parlour had offered to transport the bodies at no cost. Both families told New Frame that the government had expressed an intention to assist, but that nothing had been arranged yet.
The Westcliff church has opened its doors to more than 30 displaced people and expects to accommodate more affected by the rain and floods.