The furious storm ripped through Durban, but life goes on

Cars and homes were washed away but far more damaging to the shacks are the city’s bulldozers. (Rogan Ward/Reuters)

Cars and homes were washed away but far more damaging to the shacks are the city’s bulldozers. (Rogan Ward/Reuters)

Wednesday morning. The light has that soft, still quality that comes with early spring mornings on the East Coast. The air is as gentle as the light. It’s nothing like the previous day’s unending maelstrom of wind and water that tore through Durban and left at least 11 people dead.

Tuesday’s storm was insane, a terrifying reminder of nature’s fury. The city was locked down, buried in water. Countless thousands were left stranded. Schools and hospitals lost their roofs. The cost, in money and human suffering, is going to be huge.

South Durban has been the worst hit. The city’s old industrial heart and the townships around it are still submerged, courtesy of a low water table and the hangover of apartheid spatial engineering. Umlazi and Lamontville are no-go zones, hemmed in by liquid barricades. Hundreds of cars are buried in water next to the old airport site.

The shacklands that climb westwards to Cato Crest and Chesterville have also been devastated.  Walls of water have ripped through them, washing away homes and livelihoods. There are reports of drownings, of people buried alive. The poorest have paid the highest price.

The north, where Durban’s old money has migrated to join new investors drawn to the coast, has emerged from the storm relatively unscathed. There’s some flooding in the area along the Umgeni River.

We’re on the Ridge, overlooking the harbour. Trees have been felled. Cars in the street have broken windscreens. The road has that stunned but scrubbed, postapocalyptic look about it.  It’s like we’ve watched the storm from inside a safe, dry suburban bubble. The biggest disturbance has been a disrupted DStv signal.

Birds and insects are cautiously finding their voices. The whirring and chirping gets louder as their celebration of survival becomes more confident. The mayhem is over. Life goes on.

On the other side of the Ridge is the department of public works conference centre at Mayville where the Moerane commission is holding hearings into the political killings in the province.  The complex is next to the Jesus Dome that burned down last year. It’s this sprawling jumble of World War II vintage government offices and post-apartheid architecture that acts as a buffer between the Cato Crest shacks and Sherwood.  There are old steam boilers and crumbling red-brick buildings that house only the security guards looking after them.

There’s a municipal crew clearing the road on the way. Piles of sand and rubble, some of which used to be people’s homes, have washed into the main road from the ring of shacks encircling the public works complex.

There’s a crowd of about 50 people from Cato Crest blocking the entrance to the conference centre.  They’re mainly women and youngsters. Most of them are in the red T-shirts of the shackdweller movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo. Abahlali and the city have been in a war for more than a decade. They’ve become a political force in Durban. The security guards have closed the gates to keep them out.

Most of the crowd have lost their homes, but not to the floods. Their shacks had been bulldozed by the city’s land invasions unit a few days before the flood came. A series of high court orders banning the city from doing so unless it provides them with alternative accommodation hasn’t stopped the bulldozers. Or the beatings.

It’s an unending war. People build shacks. The city knocks them down. They build them again. The city sends in the bulldozers.

The cops arrive to back up the security guards. Nobody’s getting in. Abahlali had an opportunity to address the commission on the killing of its leaders a few weeks ago.

There’s some singing, a fair amount of swearing of mothers and so on. The crowd disperses, heads down the hill towards what’s left of their shacks. And their lives.

The commission witnesses and officials have entered through the back gate.  The commission starts. It’s business as usual.

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