Johannesburg, South Africa – At 8pm on Monday, Mthobisi Gasa struggled to cross a bridge that had been submerged in water to go to his home in Inanda, on the outskirts of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal province.
The 24-year-old retail trainee trekked through waist-high water for more than an hour by forming a human chain with strangers heading in the same direction to avoid drowning. He was devastated when he finally reached his two-bedroom home.
“My door would not open, so I looked through the window and realised it was completely filled with water,” said Gasa. “I forced the door open and the entire front area of my house collapsed. I decided to save important things and then watched my entire house fall. The floods have destroyed me.”
According to the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, heavy rains have swept away homes, sunk highways, flooded bridges, and killed nearly 400 people since Monday night in KwaZulu-Natal, the second-most populous of the country’s nine provinces.
The city of Durban and the surrounding mostly low-income areas have been the most affected. The devastation has been so catastrophic that the provincial government has declared a state of disaster.
Rescue efforts continue for an unspecified number of missing people, including children. Ntombizakhe Mthembu, a 26-year-old hairdresser from KwaMashu, a Durban township, is keeping her hopes up as she desperately looks for her missing four-year-old daughter.
“I woke up around 2am and noticed everything right below my bed covered in water, and my daughter was sleeping next to me,” Mthembu explained. “I told her to stay on the bed, and I helped my mother who was trying to direct the water away.”
“Next thing [I know], my mother and I were taken by the water.”
A neighbour helped her hang onto a pole to prevent her from drowning until she was rescued in the morning.
On Thursday afternoon, a distressed Mthembu found her 59-year-old mother’s lifeless body among a pile of other unidentified victims that were gathered by the community search party. Her daughter is still missing.
“I remember feeling so cold and crying because my daughter must have also been cold,” said Mthembu, who currently stays in a community hall. “I just want to find my child, if she has passed on I want to give her a dignified burial.”
In the same community, Mnqobi Mpanza, a 29-year-old breadwinner in a family of 10, is distraught over losing his home.
“I live with my aunts, siblings and their children, I have so many mouths to feed, I do not know what to do now,” he said. “We have lost everything and we need urgent help.”
Mpanza said he has been reaching out to his local municipality and community leaders since the tragic Monday night. “No one is giving us anything concrete. They will send you from pillar to post and tell you about soup kitchens, but we have lost everything we own. We need real help.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa described the floods as “a disaster of catastrophic proportions” during a visit to affected towns on Wednesday, and promised to assist families in rebuilding their homes.
Echoing the president’s words in a press briefing on Thursday, the premier of the province, Sihle Zikalala, assured the public that they would intervene in affected communities with “food supplies, vouchers, blankets and other necessities”.
Zikalala said the floods had affected basic services such as water and electricity in various areas across the region. “The large scale of the damage needs all hands on deck, we will do everything in our power to restore service delivery and assist everyone that has been affected by this disaster.”
Gasa from Inanda is sceptical about the amount of help he will receive from the government. “I just don’t think they care about people like me,” he said. “Many of us were already living in fragile homes because the government neglected us. Nothing will change.”