On election morning, just a stone’s throw away from a river that spills into Isipingo, Thabani Mthembu and his siblings were frantically mixing cement and water to rebuild the structure they once called home in L section of Umlazi, southwest of Durban. Their home was swept away in the floods that ravaged parts of KwaZulu-Natal two weeks ago.
“I am hurt that I couldn’t vote today. This would have been my first time voting. I was really excited, but unfortunately this is the reality that we have to live with,” said the 21-year-old.
Mthembu is among hundreds of residents who were affected by the floods that hit shortly after the Easter weekend. New Frame reported that damage at the time was estimated at R658 million. At least 85 people died and hundreds were displaced.
Mthembu, hands covered in cement and sweat running down his forehead, said he was visiting his father in Nkandla when the floods hit. If he had been able to vote, he would have plumped for the EFF because it had restored his hope in the country.
“I arrived on Friday and found that the family house, where nine of us were living, had been swept away completely. I have erected a shack so that it can house the children temporarily so that they can go to the school in the area.”
A dried-out mattress salvaged from a nearby stream was leaning against the newly built shack. A purple plastic container, an empty Aromat container, a Ricoffy tin and a lone pair of slip slops were all that remained of what the family used to own. Everything else – furniture, a DStv satellite dish, a television set, beds, couches and clothing – was lost.
“Some of my family members are squatting in M section. Some good Samaritan offered to assist us,” said Mthembu.
Instead of voting, Mthembu and his siblings spent 8 May rebuilding their home. There was nothing else they could do because their ID documents were lost in the floods.
‘I quickly grabbed my ID’
Not far from the Mthembus, down a steep driveway, a gaping hole surrounded by mounds of sand made up the Nxeles backyard in AA section of Umlazi. Tholakela Nxele had just finished running her bath when New Frame knocked on her door.
“That Monday, I remember it had just been the Easter weekend. It rained and I thought it was just normal rain. It kept raining and raining and getting stronger and stronger,” recalled the 66-year-old.
At around 10pm, Nxele looked outside her bedroom window and was shocked to see that her washing line had vanished. She closed the curtain in disbelief before peeping out again; the washing line was still gone.
“When I looked outside again, I noticed a deep hole and I called the kids. When we went outside to investigate, we saw that the fence had fallen and the hole had come all the way to the edge of the house. We were scared.”
Nxele’s daughter Nomthandazo, who lives in Johannesburg, made arrangements for the family to spend the night at a lodge in central Durban.
“I only left with what I was wearing. I am not sure what made me think of it, but I quickly grabbed my ID and I knew that if the house collapsed, that would have been the only thing I owned.”
Men were working on the exposed sewerage system on the morning of 8 May.
“We are quickly trying to repair what we can because we do not know when the next rain will come and cause further damage to the house.”
Voting as hoping
Nxele and her family had watched President Cyril Ramaphosa lay crosses on top on the rubble of fallen houses and hoped that his visit meant they, too, would get help quickly.
“They [the municipality and the government] said they would help us, but it was not clear exactly where we should go to report the damage … At this stage, reporting the matter does not matter because we will be sent from pillar to post and we will be left in limbo for months.”
Despite the unexpected inconvenience and expense incurred to repair their home, Nxele voted at the Mandlakazulu Hall voting station, not far from her home.
“My hope after voting is that the government can help us,” said the pensioner, who fears that her house will collapse any day now because of the cracks in her bedroom that appeared after the heavy rain.
About 32km from Umlazi, at the Bottlebrush shack settlement in Shallcross, the path leading to Jabulile Sylvia Dlamini’s home in 1102 Monkeyland is a dangerous one. Her home is on the other side of a minefield of exposed electricity wires criss-crossing the shacks.
Sitting in a dark shack with her husband, Dlamini is wearing a navy-blue shawl and matching doek to signal a period of mourning.
Her firstborn son, Nkululeko Welcome Dlamini, died when their shack collapsed on him while he was sleeping. The 29-year-old died instantly.
“I was sleeping with four people, including my husband. Nkululeko was sleeping in the room next door and two other people were sleeping in the kitchen.”
The sound of the house collapsing woke her up. “I tried to jump, it was too late because everything was already on top of me, so I could not move. When I heard the sound, I turned around and saw all the rubble levelled all around us.
“I screamed ‘Nkule, Nkule, Nkule’, but I knew it was in vain. I knew that he had died. He did not even scream ‘ouch’ from the pain,” said a teary-eyed Dlamini.
The 55-year-old was trapped under the rubble with her dead son. Her husband, Daniel Motthabane, managed to escape with a toddler.
On Saturday 4 May, the family buried their son in Izingolweni near Amanzimtoti, without the help of the government. They hold no grudges.
“This morning my wife and I had to dig deep inside, but we went to vote. We were lucky to find all our identity documents lying in the rubble,” said Motthabane.
“My vote is my secret,” quipped Dlamini, adding that she hoped the government would provide families like hers with adequate housing, “so that we can live with all of our children”.
Not too far from Monkeyland is a large marquee for displaced families, which Lucky Nkabinde shares with 83 families. The tent is divided into sections for men and women.
A large pot of vegetable biryani that arrived at midday on Tuesday 7 May, bottled water and bags of mielie meal lay on a table in the corner of the tent.
When the floods came, Nkabinde, 44, was living alone in a one-bedroomed shack in section 1104 of Bottlebrush. Luckily, his two children, who only come to Durban to visit him during the holidays, were in Escort, a small town in uThukela District.
Nkabinde, who works at eThekwini Steel Windows, said water came gushing into his shack. “I lost everything, including my ID.”
The following morning Nkabinde, along with other members of the shack settlement, tried to recover whatever they could.
“On Tuesday, I went to a local primary school where we had gathered to report and register our names on a list of those who had been affected. We were then taken to this tent in Shallcross, where we are sharing the space with other families.”
Nkabinde said the community was promised that they would, at most, stay in the marquee for five days. But it has been two weeks since the floods.
“Some women are pregnant, there are newborns and other people are sick. Food only comes once a day and we are on treatment. Our councillor doesn’t even come to check on us.”