Catastrophe, tragedy, devastation and calamity are just some of the inadequate words to begin to describe the scale and scope of the horror of one of South Africa’s worst natural disasters in KwaZulu-Natal, just before the Easter, Pesach and Ramadan Kareem celebrations and the dignity of this Holy period.
More than 448 people have passed away, with more than 30 cases of missing persons, 3,937 homes destroyed, 8,039 homes partially destroyed, 13,500 households affected and 551 schools destroyed.
Durban recorded 351mm (more than double the 165mm record of 2019) of rainfall on Tuesday, 12 April. The floods led to the disastrous Durban harbour and port temporary closure, left rail networks inoperable and rendered the container terminal, truck depots and Island View fuel terminal largely inaccessible.
This is the country’s major arterial and supply chain backbone and its disruption will have a deleterious effect on the economy. The floods also damaged major infrastructure, water pipes, bridges, electricity supply, 900 telecommunications towers, dams, sugar cane fields and flooded factories like Toyota, Mondi and Sappi.
Claims to insurance companies and re-insurers will be significant. In the tourism and hospitality sector, at least 16% of bookings were cancelled in Durban for the Easter weekend, representing a projected loss of about 30,000 visitors, a R30-million direct spend loss with a R74-million GDP loss, 155 temporary job losses and exponentially less traffic compared to previous years.
This is truly a devastating blow to a province still reeling from the two weeks in July 2021 of a failed insurrection, general mayhem, rampant looting and widespread riots.
While accepting that the province is in the midst of a La Niña extreme weather phenomenon and climate change, government should have anticipated and therefore better planned for this calamity.
The lessons extracted from this province’s deadly history of floods should have better informed our preparedness — from the February 1984 950mm rainfall of Cyclone Domoina with 100km/h winds that killed 60 people and R100-million cost of repairs; the September 1987 floods when there was 600mm rain over four days that killed 380 people and R600-million cost of repairs; to April 2019’s 165mm rainfall that killed 85 people costing R658-million.
These extreme weather events will affect food security (agricultural and livestock production), energy security, telecommunications and so forth, which will lead to higher food prices, energy costs, data prices and ultimately more social security issues.
The two weeks failed insurrection in July 2021’s devastation on our economy has made the implementation of our Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan (ERRP) even more urgent.
By 19 July 2021, the attempted insurrection resulted in more than 354 lives lost, 150,000 jobs were put at risk, 5,000 informal traders and 32 schools were vandalised or had equipment stolen, while one school was destroyed in a fire, 40,000 businesses were affected, 200 shopping centres looted and damaged, 3,000 stores looted, 300 bank and post office outlets vandalised, 1,400 ATMs damaged, 161 liquor outlets looted, 113 communications infrastructure significantly damaged, 11 warehouses and eight factories were burned, with R1.5-billion worth of stock lost just in KZN — a R50-billion (R20-billion in KZN) impact on national GDP.
About 1.5 million rounds of ammunition were stolen from a container at a depot in Prospecton. Clicks Group’s United Pharmaceutical Distributors was looted and the pharmaceutical company Cipla’s factory in Durban was also burned down. More than 90 pharmacies were destroyed and vaccines and other medication were not spared from the rampant looting and torching of buildings.
The real loss, though, is how we continue with the self-harm and self-infliction of the fifth wound (on top of State Capture, recession, serial downgrades by rating agencies and the pandemic) of rampant looting and destruction of crucial infrastructure, deliberate disruption to our vaccine rollout programme, and how this ANC-led government has taken the economy back at least 20 years.
It was former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who reminds us that “corruption is measured not just in the billions of dollars of squandered or stolen government resources, but most poignantly in the absence of hospitals, schools, clean water, roads and bridges that would have changed families and communities.”
We will never be able to comprehend and therefore quantify the collective trauma, fear and anxiety of citizens who, at their moment of need, were failed by government in its constitutional mandate (to deepen constitutionalism, respect for the rule of law and promotion and protection of human rights) and duty to protect us. The loss of the deep sense of the sanctity of life, respect for property in the public interest, the innocence of our youth, values of not being in the habit of taking things that do not belong to you (because sons learn by looking at the back of the heads of their fathers) and being my sister’s (and brother’s) keeper.
The economic devastation was brought about by the lowest levels of confidence, trust and hope since the Second World War. The biggest loser is the ANC. It has lost its founding principles, integrity, moral authority to be the leader of society, legitimate claim to delivering social justice and social licence to continue to not only exist but thrive.
This demands forward-looking population growth, town planning, stringent border management, proper design, reliable construction, planned and preventative maintenance.
There must be a specific focus on preparedness, regular disaster management simulations, law and order, the future, good governance and awareness of climate change. This includes more resilient housing only in suitable areas for construction, green spaces, awareness of depleted groundwater, a just energy transition, and planning for rising sea levels, severe storms, long-term droughts, very cold weather and heatwaves. There must be natural disaster management capacity to ensure minimum standards are adhered to and maintained.
New infrastructure planning has to take extreme weather events into consideration and current infrastructure meant to mitigate flooding must be regularly upgraded and kept in excellent working order — this includes management of our wetlands systems (forest and grasslands), stormwater infrastructure, municipal water drainage, and regular clearing of sand, debris, rubbish and overgrown grass from stormwater drains is the bare minimum.
Global events also impact on South Africa — like the Canada truck drivers’ strike that literally shut down that country. The unprovoked, unwarranted and unjustifiable Russian invasion of Ukraine. This too will lead to further supply chain disruptions, increasing energy prices as the world struggles to replace Russian oil and gas, and increasing food prices as the two countries supply about 30% of the global wheat grains.
It is against this background that graduation ceremonies such as this one are truly remarkable occasions to celebrate the achievements of education. It is up to you as graduates to complete the unfinished goals of this country and bring about a better world. Please be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire. You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.
My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together — for beauty, love and justice — in recognition of the African adage that says a child who is not embraced by his village will burn it down in order to feel its warmth. DM
This is an edited version of a speech by Prof Mohale to University of the Free State graduates.
Bonang Francis Mohale is the President of Business Unity South Africa (BUSA), Chancellor of the University of the Free State, Professor of Practice in the Johannesburg Business School (JBS) College of Business and Economics and Chairman of both The Bidvest Group Limited and SBV Services and is a member of the Community of Chairpersons (CoC) of the World Economic Forum. He is the author of the best selling books, “Lift As You Rise“ and “Behold The Turtle”!