Paddy Harper: KwaZulu-Natal’s disaster was waiting to happen

Thursday.

I’ve passed over the provincial government’s prayer for the 448 people who lost their lives in the floods that savaged the KwaZulu-Natal coast last week that’s being held at the Durban exhibition centre.

It’s not because I’m averse to praying — I do it all the time — or because the province in general and Durban in particular don’t need prayer, especially after the flooding and landslides that have left an estimated 40 000 people homeless.

The city and us who live in it have had our fair share of natural and engineered disasters in the past couple of years — the Covid-19 lockdown, an attempted insurrection last July and now the floods — so we could be doing with whatever intervention (divine or otherwise) that can be mustered by whatever means.

We’ve also been forced to sit by since 2015 and watch the city’s capacity to maintain its roads and drains, to deliver water and electricity to its residents, to take away the rubbish and keep the streets clean being eroded by the people tasked with delivering these services.

A disaster waiting to happen.

There will be a good few of those who sank the city long before it was flooded at the prayer meeting, all amens and hallelujahs, suits and shawls, beseeching the Almighty to come down and clean up the mess they helped to create. Hence my decision to stay away.  

Deliver us from our own handiwork.

Like most of the city, I was caught off guard by the flooding — floored actually.

One minute, we were trying to process the election of Zandile Gumede as ANC eThekwini regional chairperson and its implications for the city, the province and the country, the next, houses and roads were being washed away, bridges were collapsing and half of Durban was under water.

My ward, 33, came out of the small apocalypse better off than most — three days of no power and a couple of new sinkholes in Cromwell Road, but otherwise very little damage, compared with the rest of the city.

We had been told to expect the worst — seven days of no power and potential water outages for the ward — but a top-notch response by the city’s electricity and water department’s meant we were back on line far sooner.

There was a run on water at all the local shops — the same humans who bought whole forests of toilet paper in March 2020 for the Covid lockdown were at it again, once they had finished hogging what petrol was left — but otherwise ward 33 emerged from the flooding soaked, but pretty much unscathed.

I’d just hauled the contents of my deep freezer to my son’s house on Wednesday when the power came back on. I hadn’t even finished unpacking the kebabs and chicken sausages when the all clear came on the ward WhatsApp group — and it’s stayed on since.

Eskom’s  Andre de Donker has exempted Durban from the latest round of load-shedding. The week-long power outage in much of the city means we’ve already shed enough for the Prince of Darkness to leave us alone — for now.

Like many of my fellow South Africans, I’m wondering what role the Cuban doctors and water engineers we have imported at such high cost in recent years have been playing in the province since the flooding started.

Our Caribbean saviours have been pretty much invisible since they arrived — with so much fanfare — to save us, something like eThekwini mayor Mxolisi Kaunda, who has been off the radar since President Cyril Ramaphosa came to Durban last Wednesday to see the damage for himself.

Deputy mayor Philani Mavundla has been at the forefront of the city’s response in trying to get the roads open and the lights and water back on — he’s been pretty exemplary in his efforts if one is to be honest — in almost every corner of the city.

The Cubans disappeared — quietly — just after their arrival was announced at the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 by the water and sanitation and health ministers.

One minute, the Havana Brigade is here to save us from Covid-19 and to keep the taps running, the next — like Kaunda and the ministers who imported them — they’re gone.

Missing.

Perhaps Kaunda — and the Cubans — will re-appear, like Jesus after Easter, but different, and make it to the prayer meeting, all smiles and straightened ties, just in time for the cameras to start rolling.

Perhaps they won’t even bother.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper
Storyteller.

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