OPINION| Wretched zones of the damned in South Africa

Blighted zones are abandoned places where state care has ceased. They are places of keening that rents the night. These places are generally out of view and far from the media and glare of cameras. Villages that dot the Wild Coast, tracts of land in Limpopo, dry plains in the Free State and peri-urban townships of death. Places where healthcare does not exist, the grassy hills serve as toilets, criminals come to hide, justice is homegrown, older women have to be witches and where rape is punishment. They are places the politicians’ cavalcades visit once every five years. 

Until recently, the city has been a place of reprieve from the invisible evils of the village. Migration to cities has been about both seeking jobs and escaping rural life, where death has become unremarkable. But now, while mayors and political principals feed at the trough and fill their bellies with public funds, we have witnessed the collapse of the city. The city no longer offers succour and opportunity. 

Durban was in free fall before the recent floods destroyed it. Schooled by taxi mobsters and the calamity of the ANC and the Inkatha killing frenzy of the late 1980s and early 1990s, city officials were hiring hitmen to kill political opponents and oversight officials long before this iteration of flooding. With the floodwaters threateningly poised over the city and its surrounds, the ANC’s eThekwini region was appointing the former mayor, who had been officially charged with corruption, as its leader. 

Rewarding crime, corruption and crass performances of wealth has come to define the very pulse of KwaZulu-Natal politics. Instant wealth is rewarded with celebrity and television shows. 

Grime collects on the Esplanade, the port goes belly up, capital migrates north to Umhlanga, elevators stop working, parts of the city become dangerous no-walk-zones and litter rots in the humidity. Hunger stalks the expanding homeless communities that sleep in urine-drenched alleyways. Streetlights are not replaced and the poles and infrastructure are carried away — first at night and then in broad daylight.

And then the rains come with a rage and ferocity of biblical proportions. With drains clogged by neglect, autumn foliage and the possessions of those who live on the streets, water levels escalate. They rise above street level, entering doorways, tugging at walls and uprooting foundations and trees. Waters course down walls long stripped of gutters. Flood waters climb staircases and stream down elevator shafts. Potholes gurgle and choke. They stretch out and rip roads apart. Tar gives way and runs with the mud. Bridges duck for cover and make way at the approach of raging rivers and port containers. Doors, trees, tables, rooftops, infants and their grandmothers, beds, crockery and walls float down rivers and thunder towards the Indian Ocean. New rivers emerge where people lived and they too march oceanward. 

This flood did not spare the middle classes who live above the ocean at eMdloti. The land gave way beneath multimillion-rand apartments and opened bloody ravines to the ocean. The Indian Ocean matched the insatiable greed of the city officials and swallowed everything in its wake only to belch out livelihoods and bodies like bloated waste in the days after the rains ceased. 

But like all tragedies, the mourning classes are always working class and black. Those unable to turn to insurance, second homes and savings. These are Frantz Fanon’s wretched of the Earth whose dazed faces we see searching for their dead, livestock and meagre possessions. Our television screens are filled with their haunted eyes. 

The image and words of a man who is matter of factly searching for his grandmother and niece in the forests keeps me awake. A scent in the wind led him to the decomposing body of a little girl. Fatigue does not stop his search. 

People fan out and dig for bodies. Their feet squelch in the red mud. Their weary eyes scan the earth and ravines. They dig around a hat hoping to find its owner. The flood buried many of its victims. A woman tells a news reporter that she regrets not dying with her mother and daughter. Her tears will not stop and she speaks oblivious of her flooding face.

Tragedy is in the air of this crumbling city. It is still filled with the cloying violence of the 2021 July unrest that threatened its very foundations. If Pietermaritzburg fell in 2021 and the Msunduzi municipality lies belly up, then this year is the fall of Durban. One felled by fire and the other by water. Violence pulses like an earthquake here. These colonial cities were built on violence. 

When settlers named Durban and Pietermaritzburg declared the cities into being, it was an act of violent dispossession. Zulu nationalism that consolidated the independent clans of this region into one nation, was a violent act. We might celebrate the king — bayede — but the night winds carry ancestral screams from wounds of old vanquished chieftaincies. The Inkatha and ANC war killed people whose souls wander the hills. Violence is sedimented and has found a home here. The floods cannot wash away the blood that stains the sand. Governance is a violent affair. 

The city officials clear their throats. Their faces appear stricken but they rub their palms beneath the table as pledges for funds are made. They divert water tankers and food trucks to their homes. They set up committees and resurrect patronage networks. The floods have revived their popularity and they give interviews all day. 

But keening cuts through the night as the mourning classes begin to bury their dead. The weeping classes dig beneath the reeds in the hope of finding the dead to give them dignified funerals and to save them from being eaten by hungry dogs. In Ntuzuma D section, the cemetery is excavated by water and the bones of the dead rise up. A skull here, femur there and pelvic bones brush up against those of neighbours. The newly drowned meet the long dead on the earth’s surface in a macabre dance of necropolitics.

Political hyenas bare their teeth. 

There is no electricity for a week. It returns slowly. But it remains dark in the blighted zones of abandonment where television cameras and cell phone networks do not reach. Large swathes of the city’s sprawling townships remain without water. People join long queues at dawn and wait for water tankers. 

A water official is gunned down at the Ottawa municipal depot. Bullets to her head and abdomen. We speculate that she might have believed the instruction that corruption was placed on hold during this crisis. But feeders want to eat in pandemics and the pandemonium wrought by drenching floods. Hitmen are making a killing. Residents begin to fight for water. 

Bridges are washed away, schools are roofless. Hospital and clinic beds, patient records and equipment bob gently in the receding waters. Women give birth on river banks and black death continues apace. Cholera pokes her head above water. She bides her time. Crocodiles circle with their beady eyes slyly looking without appearing to see.

The city mayor wears his mayoral chain. No one has told him that his city has fallen. No one has told the provincial premier that with trust totally eroded, it is the donor agencies that now run the fallen city.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Hugo ka Canham
Hugo ka Canham
Hugo ka Canham is associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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