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Human Rights Day? No human rights for eThekwini’s Umlazi flood victims three years down the line

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Vanessa Burger is an independent community activist for human rights and social justice.

The plight of eThekwini flood victims reveals the depth of the ANC-led local government’s complete disregard for the human rights of the displaced community.

A year ago on Human Rights Day, we reported on the eThekwini municipality’s failure to assist Umlazi flood victims who lost their homes during a mega-storm in April 2019.

“Temporarily” housed for nearly two years in a crowded communal tent at Tehuis hostel, in early 2021 the flood victims were hastily moved to a half-finished transit camp in Lamontville after questions regarding R900-million in disaster relief — some of which was meant to rehouse storm displacees — were raised with local and provincial government. Since then, conditions have only worsened for the transit camp residents.

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“Eskom or eThekwini electricity inspectors came today. They said a transit camp should not have been built here. They said it’s on top of a big electric cable for Mondi Papers — it is not allowed,” said a community source* from the recently constructed transit camp in Lamontville which now houses the 2019 flood victims.

A month later, in August 2021, our source called again, “The electricity officials came back today. This time they came with the ANC ward [74] councillor [Nolubabalo] Mthembu. They marked with red dots where the electricity cable is underground. They said all the people staying in the transit camp must be relocated because it’s too dangerous to build rooms above a high voltage cable. Councillor Mthembu and the Tehuis committee promised that the people will be relocated, but we know they don’t have a place. We’ve heard these promises many times before.”

Local government elections were only two months away and Mthembu was standing for a fourth term.

“Like Mugabe,” commented a former Tehuis leader, “some councillors think their position is for life.”

It seems there are plans to expand the camp but this could not be verified because neither local nor provincial government will engage on concerns regarding the disaster victims, the transit camp or the nearly R900-million allocated to the municipality in 2019 for flood relief.

Another month passed and a further message came, this time from a different source: “our situation is terrible. We are not receiving anything now from the soup kitchen at Tehuis since we were moved here.”

While living in the tent in the hostel’s grounds, the flood victims had at least benefited from meals provided five days a week by the local soup kitchen. Now families are solely dependent on those who receive government grants. Unemployment throughout the community is almost universal.

“And the [Tehuis] committee came today collecting R5 from each person to fix the water tap,” our source complained, “I told them I’m not working, I’ve not got even R1 in my pocket.”

The transit camp has one tap that serves almost 100 residents, mostly women, children and the elderly, all of whom were moved from the tent at Tehuis to the new transit camp in mid-March — Human Rights Month 2021. Unlike most other transit camps, there are no ablution facilities at the “new” camp, only portable toilets that are supposed to be cleaned once a week but are regularly neglected for much longer. To bath or do washing, residents draw water from the tap and carry it in a bucket to their tiny tin rooms. There is no privacy from other family members sharing these cramped, stifling spaces.

Ironically, 54% of water purchased by the municipality (which incurred around R4-billion in wasteful and irregular expenditure over the past two financial years) is lost to poor maintenance, ageing infrastructure, theft and mismanagement. The ANC-led administration has become notorious for wasting resources and human capital.

What cannot be looted and converted into designer clothes, flashy cars, luxury mansions or overseas trips by the political elite is viewed as an unwelcome distraction. This includes the progressively restive, disenfranchised majority — “our people” according to the ANC — who are increasingly forced to the cruel periphery of our country’s unsustainable social bubble — a bubble that is set to explode under the multiple pressures of poverty, inequality, indignity, corruption and the indifference of a parasitic ruling class.

eThekwini Municipality executive committee member, Yogis Govender, recently described the city’s escalating water and sanitation emergency as a “growing human rights crisis”. Unfortunately, however, for the ANC, a situation is only deemed a “crisis” when it directly affects their ability to retain power over the populace and the ever-shrinking public purse.

Power to the people? 

In early November a distraught source reported, “just now a child was shocked by an illegal electricity connection. His name is Tshepo. He is only eight years old. He fell down and only woke up when water was poured on him. He was taken to hospital, he is in a serious condition. The community is very angry. They are planning to close the roads to protest against the councillor and the ANC.”

There are no safe sources of electricity at the municipality’s transit camps. City officials make the disingenuous claim that as the camps are meant to provide only short-term, temporary accommodation, infrastructure development and proper service provision is not warranted. So most residents of the new camp pay R100 each month for illegal and very dangerous electricity connections.

“How else can we charge our phones, apply for jobs, stop our food from going rotten, or get light for our children to study and do their homework?” asked another source — a woman — who also described her fear of being attacked when visiting the portable toilets in total darkness.

The price of power paraffin — the use of which can be almost as dangerous as illegal electricity connections in such confined and crowded conditions — is predicted to increase by R2.66 next month, more than 50c higher per litre than the anticipated increase in the cost of petrol. Either way, paying for power takes a huge chunk from a child support grant (R480), or even worse, the Social Relief of Distress Grant (R350), a cost that residents bear in the knowledge that it can prove potentially lethal at any given moment, as it almost did for young Tshepo.

Yet in terms of the government’s poverty alleviation strategy, poor households are supposed to receive around 50kWh of electricity and 6kl of water for free each month. But to qualify for this support, applicants must meet various criteria, such as being registered for municipal services. This, of course, if you had previously lived in a shack in an informal settlement that was swept away in a flood and have since been dumped in a transit camp, is an obviously impossible requirement. It would seem some South Africans have become too poor to qualify for poverty relief.   

According to a 2021 media report, the municipality’s 71 transit camps provide 10,140 accommodation units for “attending to various disasters” and “for people who had to be relocated from their shacks for city infrastructure upgrades for the 2010 Fifa World Cup”.

Since then the municipality claims to have demolished 17 camps and relocated residents. But at its current rate of construction of around 4,000 houses per year, it will take more than a century to clear the city’s estimated 440,000 social housing backlog — hardly reassuring for communities left to rot in transit hell. The report was also silent on new camps that are being built. 

A year ago the city’s Audit Committee warned the municipality of the need to put in place urgent measures to counter increasingly frequent, dangerous weather events. At the time municipal spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela blamed illegal dumping which he said clogged the city’s stormwater drains, an unprecedented influx of people to the urban precinct, and “incidents where people build on floodplains… a recipe for disaster during the summer season”.

“While we have a unit that deals with land invasions,” he said, “we also have educational programmes to educate the public about the dangers of invading land.”  

Mayisela’s answer to the city’s climate-change exacerbated housing crisis channels the state’s prejudice against the poor — that if you are poor you are either ignorant or a criminal.

According to the municipality, it would seem communities choose to eke out a precarious existence on river banks and other inhospitable areas simply because they enjoy the view, the damp or the mosquitoes; or as an act of political defiance to provoke overpaid, underperforming city officials. Our government will never admit that it has, for more than a quarter of a century, failed to address apartheid’s spatial inequalities and failed to put our globally progressive Constitution front and centre of all policy and developmental decisions.

From as far back as the early 2000s, shacks built near the Umlaas canal have been washed away in regular flooding. But instead of prioritising decent housing so that poor families are not forced to construct homes in unsafe areas — a risk progressively amplified by climate change — the municipality continues to recycle its poor from informal settlements to transit camps in an infinite loop of misery from which only tenderpreneurs benefit. Some of the original inhabitants of the far larger, neighbouring transit camp in Lamontville’s Gwala Street, have lost hope of ever obtaining dignified housing. It has been 15 years since they were dumped there.

More storms battered the province earlier this year leaving further families destitute and homeless. The crisis will only worsen as government’s malevolent addiction to oil and gas contributes to climate catastrophe. There will be many thousands more flood victims. The solution cannot be more transit camps and corrupt social housing contracts. The solution will not come from the ANC.

In the year that has passed since the eThekwini Municipality cast the Umlazi flood victims into the proverbial wilderness, it has become clear to most that our country has, or is rapidly becoming a failed state. It is said that a nation gets the government it deserves. I cannot agree in the context of all that our nation has already suffered.

But if we fail to oust an administration that continues to prey on our most vulnerable; that lies, obfuscates and prevaricates about its myriad failings and dubious undertakings; that steals from the poor to feed its most greedy; that rewards criminality in a charade of maintaining political “unity” but criminalises the poverty it has helped deepen; that is willing to torture, maim and kill to sustain itself; that destroys everything it touches — then we will indeed only have ourselves to blame. DM

*Names have been withheld to protect the identities of individuals who have previously been threatened.

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