For the past month, Nthathu Zungu, 31, has been waking up at 5am each day to do everything she can at home before going to the KwaSanti Community Hall near Pinetown. The hall has become home to people whose houses were destroyed during the floods that devastated KwaZulu-Natal.
Zungu starts the day by getting her two older children ready for school. She also cleans her home and ensures that her youngest, a two-year-old daughter, has everything she needs for the day with her grandmother, who looks after her. Zungu then takes a 10-minute walk to the hall where she volunteers and only leaves at 5pm or even later, depending on her responsibilities for the day.
“The loss people have experienced because of the floods was so unexpected and caused so much damage. I can’t fold my arms. I don’t have money but I do have time and can help organise, cook and clean the shelter while people wait to hear about the next step,” she said.
Her work is also to help with getting donations and writing down the names and numbers of people who come seeking shelter. Over 15 organisations, churches and individuals have donated whatever they can, including cooked food and raw ingredients, sanitation packs with toothbrushes, toothpaste, cloths, lotion and soap, blankets and other necessities.
Zungu is among many residents in KwaZulu-Natal who have rolled up their sleeves in aid of community-driven initiatives to help flood victims search for their dead relatives, clean up debris and rebuild the province. While over 400 people were left dead, hundreds are still missing and thousands have been displaced.
“We have never seen anything like this – collapsed houses, injured people everywhere … Even today four are at the clinic for checkups and some of them have children,” said Zungu. “If a parent is gone, looking for a job or visiting the clinic, we look after the child, help them with homework, change their clothes and help them wash their uniform. We are lucky here because the hall has showers at the back and our water didn’t get affected like other places, so everyone can stay clean.”
Zungu, who doesn’t have a matric and has never had stable employment, has taken several short courses that she feels have helped her to have empathy as well as organisational and people skills. Her warmth and friendliness make people gravitate towards her. During the interview, several people come to her seeking help or guidance, including a young boy who is still in primary school. “Sis’ Ntathu, I’ve eaten, I’m ready to do my homework,” the boy says, an exercise book and pen in hand. She tells him she is still a little busy and asks another volunteer to help, promising she will join them later.
She says she dreams of being a paramedic one day. “Because of the situation at home, I didn’t get to complete school,” she said. “I suffered with asthma a lot when I was younger, so I want to be able to help people who have emergencies such as I did because my life has been saved many times by that.”
One of the people seeking shelter at the hall is Sibangani Mcanyana, 42, who says he lost his job late last year and received the social relief of distress grant. “My biggest worry is I have lost all my documents and I can’t do anything without them.
“I can’t even think about R350 now, because I don’t have a phone and other people have said how difficult applying has become with the new questions and death certificates that they want. So that’s out. I just need my ID so I can go look for a piece job but I don’t have over R200 for transport,” he said.
Another anxiety-inducing matter is possibly being housed in small shacks called lindelas, which means “wait” in isiZulu. These are meant to be transitional accommodation until RDP houses are built. “They just choose a patch of land and place these shacks there and that community becomes a target for criminals,” said Mcanyana.
“It’s usually hard to get water or electricity as the land was just there, not for humans to live. There are lindelas here in KwaSanti and those people live in fear. Crime is high there, it’s dirty and some have been there for over 13 years. You wait there until you die,” he added.
“We ask for an alternative, please, anything but a lindela. Because once they put us there, they forget us and think we are okay. It would be better if they put them in the yards we already have. At least we could be safe in our own communities and try to rebuild our own houses.”
Unrealistic and out of touch
While the number of people in the KwaSanti shelter increases, the help from government institutions does not keep pace with it. The South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) provides breakfast and lunch for only 13 people. “We have tried multiple times to let them know the number has increased, but they are stuck on the one they had from almost a month ago,” said Zungu.
Mcanyana says he is disappointed with how slowly government departments have acted to help the destitute survivors of the floods. “From home affairs to Sassa to housing, we are in the dark. That is why we got excited when we heard the councillor and other officials will be in Nazaretha, a section nearby,” he said.
The KwaSanti group collected money and hired taxis to go and hear what the officials had to say, but they returned disappointed as they were told only the 109 people in the Nazaretha shelter qualified for vouchers of R2 500 each at this time.
“They said we must be patient, they will come to us as well. I’m just thinking by the time they come maybe more people will be here. Even during lunchtime at least 15 more people came to eat because they have nothing, though they have a place to sleep,” said Mcanyana.
Zungu says despite the hard conditions and anxiety that people in the hall feel, they are kind to one another and willing to lend a hand. “The men sleep at the top [on the stage] and women and children sleep at the bottom [on the floor]. Whenever new people come, they get welcomed and find a spot. We have a child as young as a month old here and these children are all ours. We have become a small, loving community here trying to make the best of a difficult situation.”
Naledi Sikhakhane is the 2022 Eugene Saldanha Fellow in social justice journalism.
Correction, 24 May 2022: The Eugene Saldanha Memorial fellowship is supported by the SET. It was incorrectly referred to as a fund.