OPINION | eThekwini refugees ordered back to flood-prone, damaged transit camp

Not even a month after being flooded out of their government shacks at a Lamontville transit camp in Durban, flood victims sheltering in Wema and Tehuis hostels’ community halls have been told by their ward councillor to move back to the remains of their ravaged homes.

For the majority, this was not the first time they had lost everything in the ever more frequent, ever more violent storms that are hammering KwaZulu-Natal’s coast. 

Many of the flood victims were former residents of Mega Village informal settlement, located on the banks of the Umlaas Canal behind the Mega City shopping Mall. They had lost everything in the floods of April 2019.

They were subsequently housed for two years in “temporary accommodation” — a tent at Tehuis Hostel. Then, in March 2021, they were dumped in a hastily constructed transit camp next to the larger, older Lamontville transit camp in Gwala Street. 

This was a move seemingly motivated as punishment for persistently asking too many

questions about the hundreds of millions of rands that had previously been allocated to the municipality for flood relief — including housing — and which apparently failed to reach many of those most in need.

During a June 2019 media briefing, the cooperative governance and traditional affairs MEC, Sipho Hlomuka, had announced that: “… some of the storm victims are accommodated in shelters, owing to the fact that they cannot be returned to the areas they lived in because the land is not suitable for habitation [they are prone to flooding]. Others had their homes completely destroyed. We are aware that the city is hard at work at identifying suitable replacement land for them.

“[A]n amount of R90.8-million has been made available through the approval by the national department of human settlements for eThekwini metropolitan municipality to expend: R3-million on 772 transitional housing units; R1-million to assist 3 017 households with building materials to rebuild their homes; and R3-million for relocation costs where it is deemed necessary.” 

From this “support” the Mega Village flood victims seemed to have won the booby prize — the euphemistically named “transitional housing units” or amatins, which they said were far worse than their tent at Tehuis. The transit camp had no washing facilities and 

electricity and water had to be fetched from a single shared tap. When the units flooded during the recent deluge, residents were forced to flee to the nearby hostel halls.

Victims sheltering at Tehuis from the recent flood, who had been without water and electricity since 11 April, were visited on 15 April by freshly re-elected ANC eThekwini regional chairperson, corruption-accused Zandile Gumede.

Zandile Gumede, also called Mama, is the current ANC eThekwini chairperson. (Gallo Images/Darren Stewart)

She and her entourage, which included the cooperative governance and traditional affairs minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, gave them loaves of bread and cold drinks. A few days later, Gumede arranged for the delivery of blankets, mattresses and a few other small items — rubbish bins, plastic basins and, ironically, an electric kettle.

According to those present during her visit, Gumede announced that the former Mega Village/Tehuis/“new” Lamontville transit camp refugees would not be sent back to their tin shacks, but would stay at the hostel halls until they received adequate permanent houses.

It was reported that Human Settlements Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi had declared that R143-million had been allocated to help residents of Durban’s informal settlements repair their homes. She said families would receive vouchers up to a maximum of R8 000.

On 25 April, KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala proclaimed that 4 396 “temporary accommodation sites” would be provided “from the end of the week … to accommodate families that are currently accommodated in community halls, churches and schools”.

Media reports have suggested that some of these sites may also be located in the iLembe and Ugu municipalities, a long and costly distance from schools, hospitals, workplaces and city amenities previously accessible to the refugees. And once moved to another municipality, it is unlikely eThekwini officials will bother themselves further with their fate.

During interviews with reporters after the recent floods, many victims bemoaned the limited government support. One visibly traumatised woman, who told of a child swept away at Mega Village in floods in 2012, said: “Where is our councillor? She is not here with us. Although we voted for them, now the people will know that our leaders are useless.”

Back at the Wema community hall, flood victims also cornered government officials, including the eThekwini mayor, Mxolisi Kaunda, and described their suffering because they did not have dignified, safe accommodation — accommodation they had been promised by various administrations for more than a decade.

Once again, ANC representatives have proved indifferent to the anguish of the poor.

Recently, the ward 74 ANC councillor, Nolubabalo Mthembu, allegedly instructed the more than 100 flood victims still sheltering at the Wema and Tehuis community halls to return to their Lamontville transit camp.

Not only have their units and the few possessions they left behind been damaged or destroyed in the floods, but the camp is low-lying near the Umlaas Canal, which is prone to flooding. They might return only to be swept away in the next flood, which could be next year, next month or tomorrow. And they are left considerably worse off with each flood.

But even more sickening is that residents claim that in July and August 2021 Mthembu accompanied electricity inspectors to the then “new” Lamontville transit camp and was allegedly informed that the units had been constructed on top of high voltage electricity cabling — they even marked out where some of the underground cabling was laid — and that it was extremely dangerous and the residents had to be relocated immediately. 

That was eight months ago and the area has since been flooded. It does not take a genius to work out that water plus electricity can be lethal.

The residents said Mthembu had dutifully promised the inspectors the people would be moved. She then went away, only to be glimpsed again near election time — and a considerable time after the April floods this year, when she accompanied a private donation made by Engen that had apparently been facilitated by members of Black Sash for the Wema and Tehuis flood victims. 

At about this time Mthembu allegedly accused one of the former transit camp leaders of “exposing her to Inkatha”.

Mthembu allegedly claimed that once they returned to the transit camp, she will “talk to the municipality officials and see how they can assist them”.

To date, the flood victims have refused to move. As everyone knows, a transit camp is not a solution — and saturated, flood-prone ground in which high voltage cabling is buried just beneath the surface is a death trap. But perhaps that is the intention.


Vanessa Burgeris an independent community activist for human rights and social justice.

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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Vanessa Burger
Vanessa Burger is an independent community activist for human rights and social justice.

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