Ramaphosa calls KZN floods a ‘catastrophe’ as death toll climbs above 300
Multiple reports indicate that deaths were a result of cars being swept away while crossing bridges, homes collapsing, landslides and electrocution.
Just hours after President Cyril Ramaphosa ended his tour of eThekwini on Wednesday, the flooding in KwaZulu-Natal was declared a provincial disaster and gazetted as such by Dr Mmaphaka Tau, head of the National Disaster Centre.
Tau said the decision was taken after consultation with sector departments, the KwaZulu-Natal Disaster Management Centre and “after assessing the magnitude and severity of the impact of the severe weather events occurring in various municipal areas of the province”.
Earlier in the day, after overnight and early morning respite from the four days of driving rain that led to more than 300 deaths, the winter sun and blue sky returned to eThekwini for several hours.
This gave Ramaphosa an opportunity to criss-cross the district as he surveyed the damage and tried to console family members who had lost loved ones to floods or landslides. He termed the events “a catastrophe”.
During this period, vehicles again took to the roads as residents scurried to “collect supplies” and neighbours knocked on one another’s doors to offer or solicit fresh water or showers. Many areas of eThekwini remain without electricity or water.
There was also tension, scrawled on the faces and thick in the voices of community members that Daily Maverick spoke to, as reports of opportunistic and escalating looting made the rounds.
Since the July riots, there has been fear that the looting, death and destruction of 2021 would be repeated at any given opportunity.
The inclement weather did indeed bring death and destruction, but the looting was mostly opportunistic — informal settlement dwellers stripping goods from flooded containers or broken down or stationary trucks that were forced to halt while conditions cleared.
KZN’s police spokesperson, Lieutenant-Colonel Nqobile Gwala, said no cases had been opened that involved looting since the onset of the lashing rains.
Warning to criminals
But KZN Premier Sihle Zikalala knew of the incidents and said on Wednesday that the government would “not allow what is a tragic development in our province to be taken advantage of by criminals”.
The last time KwaZulu-Natal experienced such adverse weather was over the Easter weekend of 2019 when 85 people lost their lives. The cost of the destruction was tallied at R1.1-billion. More than 200 private homes were damaged. Local and provincial government spoke of climate change until they were reminded that notwithstanding climate change, poor infrastructure, drainage and sewer maintenance, poorly built RDP houses, and allowing residents to build homes on river banks had also significantly contributed to the fallout.
It is no secret that in eThekwini even a mild rain leads to overflowing drains and sewage spills that sully the ocean and bring trash on to the beaches and roads. It is also no secret that building bylaws are mostly not enforced, if at all.
Read in Daily Maverick: Devastated KZN communities search for family members swept away by floodwaters
Cecelia Mapheleba (62), a resident of Kwandengezi Coffee Farm, made it to work on Wednesday. Her employer said she should stay home for her own safety, Mapheleba told Daily Maverick, but she wanted to work.
Her 11-year-old niece was at her RDP house in Kwandengezi — a two-bedroomed structure as neat as a pin — and would not be returning to school until it was “very safe”, she said.
“When I saw the rain was coming hard, I got outside and started digging. I have always had a problem with rainwater coming into my home.”
On Saturday, she plunged her shovel into the wet ground around the house to build channels, an attempt to guide runoff from downpours. It had worked for years before that, and it worked then, she said.
Mapheleba’s home is on a slope, with the Umlazi River running below. By Monday night and into Tuesday, she was watching fridges and furniture floating down the river. She also saw a corpse in the water.
“There was also one person stuck in the river… there was nothing we could do. The police came, but they said they couldn’t [continue searching] because they were tired, and [would have to come back later].”
She could not sleep on Monday or Tuesday night. “I was dreaming bad dreams, I was very scared.”
A monetary value is yet to be assigned to the damage throughout the province, but Zikalala said it would run into “hundreds of millions” of rand.
Shops, warehouses, and malls that had just recovered from the July looting were flooded and important transport routes into the city, the Port of Durban and access roads and bridges to both the north and south coasts of the province were damaged or washed away. Houses in townships, informal settlements and suburban homes were damaged or destroyed by landslides.
Electrical substations were either destroyed or submerged, affecting water pump stations and reticulation. Power lines were severed and sewerage systems were damaged.
Mobile network provider MTN said more than 500 of its sites were affected by the rain and flooding, while Vodacom said it was “working hard to restore connectivity as quickly and safely as possible”.
According to the City of eThekwini, some areas may only see the restoration of power and water within a week, at best.
Eskom has announced that eThekwini and KwaZulu-Natal will not be required to meet load shedding targets.
Ports and industrial basin
Flooding in Durban’s industrial basin will have serious economic repercussions, while the environmental fallout is yet to be fully comprehended.
The Port of Durban was forced to suspend all activity on Monday evening as access roads and railway lines in and out of the harbour were damaged. By Wednesday partial services resumed, but shipping access will only resume once “safety has been established for marine craft and vessel navigation”.
The Transnet National Port Authority has said that operations at the deepwater port of Richards Bay are limited.
Sapref, a major crude oil refinery, had to have stranded staff airlifted from its flooded complex, while staff at global paper and packaging manufacturer Mondi, also in the industrial basin, were evacuated.
UPL toxic chemical control dam
eThekwini announced on Wednesday that the pollution control dam that was constructed to help mitigate the chemical spill from the UPL chemical warehouse had overflowed into the Umhlanga River due to the “unprecedented rains”.
The warehouse was used to store toxic chemicals, many of which had not been disclosed to authorities. It was looted and set alight during the July unrest, which led to plumes of toxic air filtering into the area. Large volumes of dangerous chemicals also entered the Umhlanga River and ocean ecosystem.
eThekwini spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela said that although most of the overflow had been halted, a “leak in the pipework that is still discharging into the environment has been observed.
“Tankering of the water from the pollution control dam has therefore resumed in earnest, and other measures to reduce the amount of rainwater entering the dam have been implemented by the specialists.”
He said that while UPL specialists had informed the city that the level of pollutants in the dam was “significantly low”, water samples were still being taken.
All of eThekwini’s beaches have been officially closed and swimming there is banned.
Gavin Kelly, the CEO of the Road Freight Association, said there was a 10km backlog of trucks from the Marianhill Plaza towards Hammarsdale on Wednesday. Some of the vehicles had already been targeted by looters.
“Access roads around the port have been damaged, container yards, truck depots and trucks themselves have been flooded and damaged and the area is really a disaster at the moment. Logistics operations will be impacted: there will be delivery disruptions for goods being imported.
“The association has advised members to delay any departures towards Durban and to find depots and safe parking areas along the way,” said Kelly, adding that food and fuel shortages were not expected.
At the time of publication, areas severely affected by the flooding in eThekwini alone included Clermont, Molweni, Umlazi, KwaMashu, Inanda, Ntuzuma, Amanzimtoti, Verulam, Merebank, the Bluff, Umbilo, Durban CBD and Umdloti.
On Tuesday evening, the provincial government said that other municipal districts affected by the heavy rains, damaging winds and flooding were Ilembe, uThukela, uMgungundlovu, King Cetshwayo, Ugu and Umzinyathi. These districts include the towns of Ballito, Ladysmith, Pietermaritzburg, Richards Bay, Port Shepstone and Dundee.
The South African Police Service announced that it would deploy a further 300 officers to the province to help with the continuing search and rescue operations.
Multiple reports indicate that deaths were caused by cars being swept away while crossing bridges, homes collapsing, landslides and electrocution.
Local security and search and rescue provider Reaction Unit SA, which works predominantly in Verulam and Tongaat, said on Wednesday that it had recovered 22 bodies.
KwaZulu-Natal’s health department MEC, Nomagugu Simelane-Zulu, told eNCA on Wednesday that since Tuesday evening, the department had admitted 253 bodies to the Pinetown and Phoenix mortuaries.
“We are just crossing our fingers that we do not find any other bodies, but the reality of the situation is that we actually might,” said Simelane-Zulu.
By 9pm on Wednesday, the number of fatalities had risen to 306.
Also in Tongaat, 12 Nile crocodiles were washed from the ponds of Crocodile Creek Farm, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife said in a brief statement. Seven had been recovered by Wednesday afternoon, according to the organisation’s Musa Mtambo.
“There is a chance the other five may have ended up in the Tongaat River,” he told Daily Maverick.
While Daily Maverick was unable to contact Crocodile Creek Farm, its owner, Peter Watson, told the North Coast Courier that five of the crocodile ponds at the farm were damaged, leaving one intact.
“On Sunday evening there was a major collapse of a bridge in the area, which also took out the secondary, outer perimeter fence at Crocodile Creek,” Watson was quoted as saying in the local paper.
“Unfortunately, the pressure on the boundary fence enclosing the crocodiles forced open two gaps when bolts were torn from the concrete, enabling some adult crocodiles to escape into the Tongaat River.”
KZN Premier Zikalala had said in a statement late on Tuesday that the province had experienced “one of the worst weather storms in the history of our country”. Ramaphosa repeated this during his visit.
It is highly likely that neither had checked data from the floods of 2019, 2002, 1987, 1984 or the 100-year flood of the 1950s.
What is telling though, is that Zikalala has been at the helm of the province throughout two inclement weather events — and during the July riots — in which mitigation factors were either not enforced or failed.
These multiple failures from Zikalala’s administration come at a time when the provincial political sand is shifting, with corruption accused former eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede re-elected as ANC regional chairperson over the weekend.
The realignment in the ANC’s KZN politics was clearly visible on Wednesday, with Gumede positioned directly behind Ramaphosa during several potential photo ops as he toured eThekwini. She was also mentioned by name in press statements from the province.
Gumede is officially just a member of the provincial legislature and sits as an ordinary member of the Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Committee. But political intrigue is little comfort for those who are facing a wet and dark future in the coming weeks.
Sandile Shangase, who lives not far from the Marianhill Monastery, had a large bank behind his modest house collapse. Fortunately, the home withstood the landslide, but thick red mud surrounds the property.
“Things are very bad here. We are just cleaning it up now,” a distressed Shangase told Daily Maverick.
“I only have 11% battery on my phone and I do not know where I can recharge. All the piping here is exposed too. I do not know when we will have water and lights again.”
His distress is not misplaced. The residential tar roads in his township, which were paid for by the city less than a decade ago, have all but disintegrated. If, as forecast, the rains pick up on Friday and throughout the weekend, Shangase and his family could be facing an even more desperate future.
But after hearing of the numerous deaths, and seeing the destruction in his neighbourhood, Shangase counts himself blessed.
“We are alive, that is what matters,” he said. DM