Wet worries for Cape Town’s poorest a perennial issue

Two weeks after heavy rainfall lashed the City of Cape Town, the Zwelitsha informal settlement in Dunoon is still ankle-deep in water.

Two winter storms brewed in the South West Atlantic and ripped through the metro in days. The strongest storm surges came at night while people were asleep. During that time the Diep River near Dunoon burst its banks and water settled into its natural catchment area. 

This is where people built their shacks. They have been living in Zwelitsha since 2019. It may have been named after a town of the same name in the Eastern Cape.

Residents said at its highest, the flood water reached an adult’s hips. One woman said she woke up in the early hours of the morning when rising water caused her fridge to overturn. 

No one was injured during the flood, but residents said they’ve lost blankets, furniture, appliances and, most importantly, documents such birth certificates and ID books.

Gladstone Madolo was one of the hundreds of people affected by the flood. He said help has been slow to reach them. Only a few food parcels here and there have arrived. Dozens of people have found shelter under a tarpaulin tent, which they erected. 

“Since the flood, our blankets and mattresses have been drying in the sun. It’s still damp. For food, we take collections among ourselves and we try to buy something to eat,” Madolo said. 

July 18 2020 – Part of Dunoon settlement outside of Cape Town experienced heavy flooding after a massive winter storm, forcing many resdients to have to abandon their homes to the water. (Photo by David Harrison)

Zwelitsha, which is on private land, was established after Dunoon became too crowded. One resident said she left her backyard bungalow for more space. Since then the number of shacks in the new settlement have multiplied. Residents said they did not know of the flood risk. 

“We didn’t know this is a floodplain. It didn’t rain a lot last year. Now we know. But we are here now, and someone must help us. We are desperate for a place to stay,” Madolo said. “We need someone to help divert the river.” 

Flooding is an annual winter occurrence in many parts of Cape Town. The poorest have little choice but to build their informal homes in areas that are seasonal wetlands and floodplains. And when winter rains come, shacks are soaked from the ground up. 

Areas such as the Taiwan informal settlement in Khayelitsha, Brown’s Farm in Philippi and Kanana in Gugulethu are on a floodplain. 

Aditya Kumar, the executive director of the Development Action Group (Dag), a non-profit organisation advocating for affordable housing, said successive governments in Cape Town have been unable to deal with the issue of housing and winter flooding. 

“During apartheid, most of Khayelitsha and neighbouring Mitchells Plain was built on historically wetland area that was filled up with soil and earth to make in inhabitable, at least in certain sections. Areas like Taiwan informal settlement along the N2 is in a floodplain area and has been there for 20 years. People generally know where they are building but there is no other choice for them at the moment. People know the risks,” Kumar said. 

Dag said the government would sooner or later need to decide whether to make land structurally suitable for formal housing. 

“Whether you can develop this land is a question that needs to be answered. A lot of these wetlands are lost now. Some of these environmentally sensitive areas that have been invaded cannot be rejuvenated,” he added

Malusi Booi, the City of Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for human settlements, said the Zwelitsha settlement, like many others, is built on private property, making it difficult to both formalise and to provide with basic services. 

“When we deal with invasions, people think we are being disingenuous. But people, I think, go out of their way to invade such places. But we are doing our best to make sure people are safe,” he said  

Booi said the city could not build formal structures in areas that are risky, but added it was providing support in the form of emergency humanitarian aid, while disaster management officials have been sent out to assess the damage and to ascertain whether there is any further risk to people. 

Catchy informal settlement names honour world events and people

Cape Town has a new informal settlement, and it’s named after possibly one of the most difficult periods in modern history.

Welcome to Covid informal settlement along the N2 highway near Mfuleni. Established just last week on vacant land, people divided the city’s newest area into two sections: Sanitiser, and Coronavirus. 

Thabiso Ngwevu, the leader of the group of several dozen people who have built shacks on the vacant land, said the name is to remember their struggle during these difficult times, but also to signify their need to maintain a physical distance. 

“The main reason we chose the name is that we were backyard dwellers, and during this time of Covid-19, we need our space, and we shouldn’t be living so close to one another,” Ngweu said.

The tradition of historically-connected names of informal settlements is not a new phenomenon in Cape Town. And while theories may differ as to their origins, the establishment of many of these settlements coincide with international historical or new events. 

Barcelona informal settlement in Gugulethu is said to have been established at the time of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. There’s also Kosovo, settled in 1998, at the time of the war in the Balkans. Closer to home, the Marikana settlement in Philippi was established and named in the months following the 2012 killing of mineworkers in the North West town. 

Divine Fuh, a social anthropologist at the University of Cape, said the naming convention is part of conveying oral history to coming generations, likening it to traditional African storytelling. 

“It’s a way of archiving. We come from a continent where our archives and history is oral. The way we imagine and remember is through physical objects,” Fuh said. 

Names can also be aspirational. The Siqalo settlement near Mitchells Plain is isiXhosa for “new beginning”. Fuh said it’s a way for people “transpose themselves into places of hope”.

Several settlements are named after political figures — Mandela Park and Samora Machel honour the African statesmen. Joe Slovo in Langa is in honour of the former South African Communist Party secretary general. Former Western Cape premier and now Democratic Alliance federal chairperson Helen Zille has also been remembered — Zille Rain Heights settlement in Grassy Park was named when people were evicted from a plot of land during the time she was mayor of the City of Cape Town. 

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Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit is a Reporter, Journalist, and Broadcaster.

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