June 28, 2022

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South African government turns to rebuilding after catastrophic floods

South African government turns to rebuilding after catastrophic floods
credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

JOHANNESBURG – The city of Durban has begun rebuilding after what South African officials described as the most devastating flood in living memory. However, hundreds of residents who were displaced by floods in previous years are still languishing in temporary camps or semi-permanent housing scattered across the city.

Nearly 4,000 homes were completely destroyed after torrential rains triggered flash floods and landslides last week that killed more than 440 people. On Monday, President Cyril Ramaphosa said more than 8,300 other homes had experienced at least some damage. Officials said those who have taken refuge in church halls and classrooms will be moved to temporary camps while the government rebuilds their homes.

Officials added that it is too soon to know the cost of rebuilding homes and infrastructure, but they expect it to reach tens of millions of dollars. As modest prefabricated homes are being built in these new camps for the displaced due to floods, residents of the existing 21 temporary camps in Durban are increasingly frustrated. Some have lived in these communities since 2009, when their tin houses gave way to stadiums and renovations for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which was erected in South Africa. Others started living in camps when Durban was hit by floods in 2017 and 2019.

City officials moved Themba Lushaba, 34, and his family into a one-room tin and drywall home in 2009, to make room for World Cup infrastructure. Thirteen years later, Mr. Lushapa is still waiting for that permanent abode.

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The settlement in the town of Isipingo is sandwiched between a field and a bustling highway, with a maze of muddy alleys between the house. The floods of 2011, 2017, 2019. This year, the waters were waist-high.

“It pains me to stay here,” he said. “It’s filthy all over the place.”

Sibusiso Zikod, a housing activist and one of the leaders of the Abhalali Base, a shantytown movement concentrated in KwaZulu-Natal, the province where it rained, said some were still living in tents, awaiting government promises of unfulfilled relief aid. A flood occurred.

These people never showed up. “They are still destitute,” Mr. Zikod said. He pointed out that this latest disaster not only caused repeated material losses for these victims, but also renewed the trauma of displacement.

Officials said that when new settlements are built, they should be built on land not prone to flooding. Informal settlements, as shanty towns are called in South Africa, are often located on open, accessible and disaster-prone land, such as low-lying areas or on the banks of rivers.

As housing officials search for land, a housing spokesperson said, they will have to compete with the industry. Durban, located on the eastern coast of South Africa and home to one of the largest ports on the continent, has also suffered significant industrial losses. Reopening the port is a priority. In a country where more than a third of the population is unemployed, officials also have to find affordable land, close to facilities like hospitals and close to job opportunities.

The government is also trying to be more efficient than it has been in the past. Mr. Baloyi said rebuilding after the 2017 floods has been slowed by a complex process for awarding government contracts. Designed to empower black-owned businesses and create transparency in public contracts, the process has been bogged down by corruption in Durban and across the country.

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This time around, South African officials are hopeful that President Ramaphosa’s declaration of a state of national disaster on Monday will speed up the recovery process. The government has introduced a voucher system that allows flood victims to purchase their own building materials and reduce dependence on the government.

“This will make them go home sooner than if we had to wait for the government to fix every home,” said Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who leads the ministry coordinating disaster relief.