THE DARK SIDE OF FLOOD RELIEF
How eThekwini staffers tried to hijack food meant for rescuers of the dead and displaced
As Durban municipality tries to cover up the attempted patronage spree, a DA councillor says City bosses can’t sweep this under the carpet.
Three eThekwini council staff members arrived in two cars at the Virginia Airport in Durban North on Monday. They tried to hijack food meant for the rescue teams arriving from around the country to search for those missing in the wake of the deadly floods which had claimed 443 lives by Monday.
The rescuers are deployed from the suburban airport to look for missing people and assist those who are displaced or marooned. They retrieve dead bodies and bring them back to the airport, where they are loaded into mortuary vans.
Volunteers have rallied to arrange care packs for the rescuers and for flood victims who are often cold and hungry, DA councillor Shontel de Boer told Daily Maverick. De Boer said that she and other women from the area decided to assist the rescue teams after hearing they would be based at Virginia Airport.
Read in Daily Maverick: Government will cooperate on relief efforts to flood-hit provinces – Dlamini Zuma
The care packs include energy boosters and bars, socks, clothing for the people being rescued and gloves for the rescuers.
On Monday, volunteers were surprised when vehicles with eThekwini council markings, driven by three officials, arrived and started loading care packs into the cars.
“At one stage during the day, one or more council staff were seen opening and eating from the prepared bags. The volunteers queried this conduct and expressed their concern,” says De Boer.
When a council truck arrived and began loading up the care packs, the volunteers called Vanessa Knight who, together with De Boer, had organised the aid effort. Knight arrived and blocked the path of the council officials. A video of this confrontation went viral on social media and sparked outrage in Durban and across the country.
The video of the confrontation that went viral on social media.
Video of a pre-deployment drill by rescuers at Virginia Airport.
Knight kicked up a rumpus and called the cops and everyone else she knew. The trucks were subsequently forced to turn around and return the goods they had attempted to remove.
“The driver was not stealing,” protested the eThekwini council in a statement.
“She is one of our employees in the Community Participation Unit and is assigned to deliver donations to one of the townships … We can also confirm reports that some residents are insisting that their donated goods be delivered to areas of their choice.”
“It’s lies,” says De Boer, who said that Virginia Airport, along with the volunteers she is working with, is supporting the rescuers. “They are busy all the time. You can see how exhausted they are when they return.”
She describes heartbreaking scenes as bodies are offloaded from helicopters. At the weekend, a woman with a baby strapped to her back was among the dead – both lost to the raging torrents.
The volunteers at the airport also provide hot drinks and care packs for the rescue teams. Tea. Coffee. Hot chocolate. The women are on the phones working their contacts at local retailers, who have responded generously, says De Boer.
The local Spar, Checkers and Hyper pack the care packs. Restaurants send food. The group has received a consignment of gloves. And restaurants in Durban North and Umhlanga provide breakfast, lunch and supper vouchers for the rescuers.
Volunteers go to the airport on a roster basis and set up the refreshment station or pack goods that go out with the rescuers. They say they did not recognise the City officials who arrived on Monday, and when they asked what they were doing there, the staff did not answer.
When the volunteers objected to the goods being packed into council vehicles, the City officials called the police – who then helped them remove the packages.
The City says the officials are from the eThekwini Community Participation Unit, but De Boer, a DA councillor in the area, says she does not recognise them.
“The unit organises ward by ward, and local councillors know the staff. If they were in my ward, I would know them.”
The City is trying to shut down the incident as “fake news”.
“There are still many questions and answers that need to be ventilated in this matter. It won’t be left to go away. Treating peoples’ donations with respect is a priority. Supporting those who brave death daily is a priority,” said De Boer in a Facebook post that went viral on Tuesday.
City Mayor Mxolisi Kaunda governs with a coalition after ANC support in Durban dropped to 42% in the November 2021 election. Analysts regard the Community Participation Unit as a cadre unit of the ANC, which often uses its heft to distribute patronage for the party.
Sources told Daily Maverick they believed the goods were destined for ANC councillors to distribute in distressed communities. This region of the governing party is the stronghold of the party’s RET faction.
“We stand by our statement,” said council spokesperson Mluleki Mntungwa.
Virginia Airport is not a depot for all donations, as the City first claimed.
Mntungwa could not name the three officials or say who sent them to take the care packages from the airport.
“We have over 20,000 staff members so I wouldn’t be able to identify these ones.” DM