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State, civil society and private sector must mobilise after KZN’s humanitarian disaster

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Prof Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg and the author of ‘Leadership Lessons From the Books I Have Read’. He is on Twitter at @txm1971.

We all have to invest in rebuilding KwaZulu-Natal – the government cannot do it alone. This humanitarian disaster is too serious to ignore.

A week after the deadly and devastating floods hit the province of KwaZulu-Natal, the destruction and damage is painfully evident. Last week, the National Disaster Management Centre declared KZN a provincial disaster, Then, on Monday, the government said this was inadequate and a National State of Disaster was declared. 

Heartbreaking images depicting loss and anguish flooded social media.

On Monday, the government deployed 10,000 troops to help restore electricity and water supply to stricken areas and search for the more than 60 people who have gone missing. It is estimated that the death toll in the province is in the region of 450. A preliminary assessment report from the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Human Settlements indicated that more than 13,500 households were affected, 3,937 houses were destroyed, and 8,039 homes were partially destroyed.

In response, society has had to rally to provide support. We all have to invest in rebuilding KwaZulu-Natal – the government cannot do it alone. This humanitarian disaster is too serious to ignore. Rebuilding KZN will require additional resources and skills and more effective leadership at all levels.

As people seem to be discouraged by the ability of the government to handle a crisis of this magnitude, it is essential to bear in mind that we all have to be part of the solution. One of the urgent matters that needs to be addressed is the issue of the restoration of trust in government.

In his book “The Social Contract”, Jean-Jacques Rousseau talks about a contract between the citizens and the government, where the people give the government the power. In South Africa, this is through elections – the vote is given in exchange for the government protecting them, especially in times of need, as we are witnessing in KZN right now. Due to corruption, including State Capture, people are losing trust in government and are increasingly relying on non-governmental organisations to solve their problems.

Last week, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) launched a fundraising initiative to assist the KZN community in rebuilding. The Chair of Council, Mike Teke, donated R100,000 and I donated R20,000. These donations are to be given to the Gift of the Givers Foundation, a humanitarian NGO that has gained a great deal of trust and has been at the forefront of collecting and distributing aid at this difficult time.

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I sounded a call for those who can voluntarily lend a hand in rebuilding KZN to do so. In the aftermath of this announcement, debates arose as to who was best poised to receive these donations. Which, between NGOs and government, is best suited to solve societal challenges? Reading from some posts on Twitter, it seems that NGOs are to be trusted more than the government. The problem is that there is no social contract between NGOs and the people, and consequently we have many NGOs that exist simply to fleece the people.

UN Sustainable Development Goal 16 is about peace, justice and strong institutions. South Africa needs a strong and capable state with the capacity to discharge its responsibilities, and this has become an urgent matter. A state that is weak easily violates human rights. As is the case in informal settlements, allowing people to build on flood lines violates their human rights. It is no less a crime than allowing and even encouraging people to touch a live electricity wire.

As Gift of the Givers wrote in a statement last week, “With all our troubles, frictions and challenges, this is indeed an incredible country where the spirit of ubuntu always takes centre stage and reigns supreme.” This is certainly the approach we need to take.

UJ chose Gift of the Givers because of their impressive track record. The foundation is the largest African-formed disaster response NGO on the continent. Since its initiation in 1992, the organisation has been responsible for delivering lifesaving goods and services as well as on-the-ground support for innumerable people, collectively valued at about R2.8-billion in more than 43 countries across the globe.

Over the past week, teams from the foundation have conducted on-site assessments to identify areas of severe damage. While roads, bridges, drainage and public infrastructure will fall under the responsibility of the government, Gift of the Givers has said they will possibly consider schools and health infrastructure for repair. In particular, the organisation will focus on informal settlements, communities in low-lying locations and the non-insured who depend on a compassionate nation to assist them in their hour of distress.

Across the board, institutions are taking steps to provide aid. The Sunday Times reported that Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana had announced that R1-billion was available immediately and that Parliament would be approached about additional resources. He explained that officials were looking at setting up an independent agency to manage the money. This would include people from outside the government to ensure proper transparency. The oversight structure will comprise Auditor-General Tsakani Maluleke and leaders in business, the religious sector, labour, community based organisations and professional bodies.

As President Ramaphosa said on Monday: “It will be critical as we undertake this work that all the resources we mobilise are used for their intended purposes and reach the intended recipients. There can be no room for corruption, mismanagement or fraud of any sort. 

“Learning from the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are drawing together various stakeholders to be part of an oversight structure to ensure all funds disbursed to respond to this disaster are properly accounted for and that the state receives value for money.”

Ramaphosa further stated that the donations will be handled by the Solidarity Fund and called on volunteers to come forward.

Given this clarion call, what should be done? First, universities must follow UJ’s lead and launch their own initiatives. Second, professional organisations should be involved in the reconstruction effort. For example, the Engineering Council of South Africa should mobilise engineers to come to the party through organisations such as Engineers Without Borders. Other professionals such as town planners and accountants should follow this example.

The lesson here is that we cannot work in silos. Admittedly, there is a national trust deficit. As an Afrobarometer survey found last year, trust in institutional checks and balances on political power is weak and continues to weaken. What is apparent is that our approach has to be much broader.

As the response to the floods has demonstrated, a multipronged approach – which leans on various institutions ranging from the public sector to the private – mitigates much of this concern. 

As George Washington once proclaimed: “Where are our men of abilities? Why do they not come forth to save their country?”

This is the strategy we need to adopt to ensure that checks and balances are in place and that the money collected is used responsibly. The debate is not about whether or not the government can be trusted in this endeavour, but rather how we all band together to play our part. DM

 

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