Phumeza Gejiso, 45, has lived in a shack settlement called Sisonke for over seven years. Her shack was built using rusted zinc and poles placed on a muddy foundation near a wetland in Mdantsane.
The Sisonke shack settlement was among several areas that were affected by the flash floods of early January 2022. Gejiso said she had to watch as water swept away her home.
The Gejisos were not prepared for the events on that fateful day when it rained for several days. “We saw heavy rains, then the floods began. Water was coming towards us hard. We thank God this happened during the day and not at night because things would have been bad for us,” she said.
Gejiso said that by midday the water levels were waist high. Unable to save anything from their homes, families had to watch as personal belongings and food were washed away.
Gejiso and 28 other families, with the help of a local councillor, are now sheltering at a nearby community hall. Having lived in the hall without blankets, enough dry clothes and adequate food, the displaced residents then approached local retail stores for food donations.
Relief organisations, such as Gift of the Givers and some local stores, provided blankets, food and second-hand clothes too. But this kind gesture happened only during the first week of the residents’ stay.
Residents said that the food they received soon ran out because of the number of families sharing it. On one particular weekend, some ate nothing for more than two days.
“The first weekend we had no food to eat, some of us who [were] left with money … started collecting funds amongst ourselves and bought whatever we could eat equally. We now rely on whoever arrives with food aid,” said Gejiso.
Waiting to be moved
Odwa Monki, 39, also lives in the hall with her two children. She said that her family were finding it difficult to adjust to living there. Even though the eldest child is 18 and the youngest 10, she said that living without knowing when they might be moved or whether they would have enough food to eat created a feeling of fear.
“The councilor seems to have abandoned us. At times, he stands at the gate and sends a message to one of us. He hardly visits anymore,” said Monki.
She also said because the food they received was mostly perishable and not varied, they had to eat the same thing over and over, causing some to have upset stomachs. “We don’t have stoves here and are not able to cook food. We only eat the same canned food … If we could get a little stove to cook with, it would make a huge difference,” she added.
Sleeping on mattresses placed on a cement floor in a large room became difficult for many of the women sheltering in the hall. As a result, many have sought small spaces to sleep in.
“It is cold here. The doors are constantly open. Some of us seek warmth and safety in odd places,” said Gejiso.
The women sheltering at the hall are also concerned about their safety. They said that sleeping in one space with men they hardly know has left them uneasy.
“We don’t even know what might happen. The doors of this hall cannot be locked and this causes a concern for us, especially when you have children,” said Nobuntu Poyi, 43.
Almost a month after the flood, the Buffalo City Municipality issued a statement officially declaring Mdantsane a disaster area. Residents said that municipal officials had visited the shack area and community hall in Sisonke only twice.
“They came and saw that homes were damaged but did not do or say anything to give us hope of being moved to a better place. They only took photographs. We want to be moved to [temporary housing structures] instead of living in this hall,” said Vusumzi Hlalu, 47.
‘Leaving was never an option’
While some families decided to seek shelter at the local hall, some opted to stay and salvage whatever was left of their belongings.
Nomfundo Nelani, 42, who has lived in the Sisonke settlement for more than seven years with her four children, said that “leaving was never an option”.
Sweeping away dried mud from the floor of her shack, Nelani said that she stayed because she has lost hope in the municipality. “We told the councillor that [we] wanted to be moved [from] here, [that] things are hard – but that never happens … in this place service delivery does not reach us. Ambulances refuse to come to our shacks, people have to carry their sick loved ones to the tar road in order to get assistance,” she said.
Kholiswa Tyiki, an activist in Mdantsane, talking about her experiences working in impoverished areas, said: “I think the [Buffalo City Municipality] is using the disaster as a political tool. I always call this municipality a ‘Buffalo Shitty Municipality’. The reason why disaster management is not able to help them [shack dwellers] is because of the corruption in this municipality,” she said.
According to a report compiled by the Eastern Cape Coordinative Governance and Trade Affairs department, there are more than 253 478 households in the Buffalo City metro, with 24.9% being shack dwellings. The report says that Mdantsane, Willow Park, Gompo Township, High Gate and Mzomuhle are areas that routinely experience high vulnerability and deprivation.
The report also states that the metro has high levels of inequality and many residents living below the poverty line: “In 2017, there were 500 000 people living in poverty, using the upper poverty line definition, across Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality.”
Sanitation infrastructure is lacking in many parts of the metro as pit toilets and the bucket system are still being used by 15.83% of households. That means there are over 19 898 pit toilets and 2 800 residents using buckets. Over 11 426 are without toilets altogether.
The Buffalo City Municipality’s communication manager Sam Ngwenya said: “All reports of flooding are being assessed by the municipality’s human settlement department, and assistance will be provided on a case to case basis, according to the outcome of the assessment. We have been reiterating to our people not to go back and rebuild on flood plains and rather opt for our temporary structures.”