Climate Emergency in South Africa

Flood damage in KZN
A brick house, demolished by KwaZulu-Natal’s recent floods, photo by author

Storms and Floods in Durban

News from South Africa is that around 450 people have died following a recent storm in Durban, in KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. In that sub-tropical region alongside the Indian Ocean, normally the rain comes, with spectacular lightning and cracks of thunder, during the hot rainy season from October to March. In April, the weather is normally quite pleasant and cools down a bit. So, such a large storm in April, “one of the worst weather storms in the history of our country,” shows that the climate emergency is coming to Southern Africa. Eighteen inches of rain fell in two days which is about half the annual rainfall.

force of nature, or preventable tragedy?

The prediction is that the eastern regions of South Africa will get wetter (KwaZulu-Natal (KZN)) and the southern parts (Cape Province) will get drier.

President Cyril Ramaphosa called the storm “a force of nature” but others have argued that the death toll from mudslides was caused by poor drainage and houses badly built on low-lying areas. The Mayor of Durban, Mxolisi Kaunda, has denied this argument about poor housing and drainage. As I lived there for 25 years, until 2017, I can comment on some issues mentioned in this news.

During apartheid times (1950–1995) the whole population was classified into four racial categories, defined as ‘White’, ‘Indian’, ‘Coloured’ (mixed racial heritage) and ‘Black’ (or ‘Native’). Although by 1950, a hundred years after it was settled as a port city, some areas of Durban were quite mixed, the apartheid laws from 1970 forced the different groups of ‘Indians’, ‘Coloureds’ and ‘Blacks’, to reside in separate townships, mostly on the outskirts of the city. ‘Blacks’ (mostly Zulus in KZN) were regarded as being only temporary, as they had homelands in the rural areas. So in their townships they rented accommodation, identical box houses built cheaply to a standard township size.

Experience of owning land in Durban

However, there was one Durban township, Clermont, which, by some fluke of bequest, permitted black people to own the property there. My husband’s mother was classified a ‘Native, and in 1950 had seized her chance and bought a plot, which she faithfully paid for out of her wages as a domestic servant for the next two decades. But she never had enough money to build on it. In her later years, she lived with family in Johannesburg, so the plot was bequeathed to my husband.

Although we lived in Durban from 1993, we were too busy to do anything about this plot until I retired. Then we decided to treat it like an allotment, and we started a fruit and vegetable garden there. The lemon trees and banana trees thrived!

A stormwater drain near the Mbalis’ garden
Run-off from the nearby road emptying out of a storm drain into a gully. Photo by author

However, the plot had various drawbacks. Mma had obviously bought just what she could afford and it was the worst plot in the road, as it sloped down steeply from an untarred road (most township roads were untarred then). Drainage from higher up was constructed under this road, and the water would flow into a deep ditch between this plot and the sloping land on the other side.

Poor drainage

In the rainy season, this could become a rushing torrent eroding the soil of Mma’s plot. The only thing that stopped soil eroding from the road side was the enormous amount of litter that had been thrown there over the decades. Once we cleared the litter, we had to use something else – scrap tyres – to stop the five-metre high bank eroding further. The soil all over Durban is very light and sandy.

Charlotte standing in front of a wall of tyres
Charlotte Mbali in her vegetable garden in Clermont; image courtesy of the author

For the next eight years we gardened there. Sometimes a storm would wash away the plantings if we had not allowed for rain flow. However, we eventually had a house built there, jutting out from a reinforced bank (with proper concrete engineered blocks to stop erosion). We used an architect and got planning permission with a similar procedure that prevails in the UK.

However, that is not how most Clermont owners used their plots. Because there is so much demand for living space around Durban, most owners constructed one brick house, and then filled the rest of the plot with poorly constructed one-room shacks, which they rented out to people who were desperate for accommodation. They were in fact drawing income from people rather than vegetables! When we sold up, the purchaser intended to do just that with Mma’s plot. I hope that the victims of the recent flood were not from that Clermont site.

Migration and vulnerability

The big cities of South Africa (Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town) attract enormous numbers of migrants, both from rural areas and from other African countries. Plenty of academic studies have quantified this migration since apartheid ended. These show that the typical migrant household is headed by a female, often poorly educated, in informal work, and with two children. So those are the typical occupants of a Durban shack situated on a steep slope, or at the bottom of one. Such were the typical victims of the recent mudslides.

South Africa is a middle-income country. The infrastructure of Durban with its excellent motorways, shopping malls, electrical connection, piped water, and internet, often impresses visitors from some other African countries further north. Even most shacks have piped water and electricity, connected either legally or illegally. Almost everybody has a mobile phone, though these are probably not well connected just now, as 900 mobile phone towers have been toppled by the storm.

Unrestricted settlement

Back to the argument between the Mayor of Durban and the commentators. Are the recent deaths from the Durban storm due to a force of nature, or are they down to poor drainage and houses built on low-lying areas? 

The fact is that the city is trying to run a modern drainage infrastructure based on planning and planning permission. But the needs of the migrants overwhelm this. Many flimsy houses are constructed without planning permission.

In apartheid days, control over settlement was restricted to those little box township houses and resented by those confined to those townships. Nowadays, informal shacks pop up all over those steep suburban hills: people are freer but, as the recent storm shows, many are now in danger – from the new threat of climate change.