South Africa’s Government Shifts to Rebuilding After Disastrous Flooding

Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

JOHANNESBURG — The city of Durban has begun rebuilding after what South African officials described as the most devastating floods in living memory. Yet, hundreds of residents displaced by floods from earlier years are still languishing in transit camps, or semi-permanent housing scattered around the city.

Nearly 4,000 homes were completely destroyed after torrential rains caused flash flooding and landslides last week that have killed more than 440 people. President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Monday that more than 8,300 other homes had sustained at least some damage. Those sheltering in church halls and classrooms will be relocated to transit camps as the government rebuilds their homes, officials said.

It is too soon to know the cost of rebuilding the homes and the infrastructure, the officials added, but they expect it to run into the tens of millions of dollars. While modest, prefabricated homes are being erected in these new camps for those displaced by the floods, the residents of Durban’s 21 existing transit camps are increasingly frustrated. Some have been living in these communities since 2009, when their tin-shack homes made way for stadiums and refurbishments for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, held in South Africa. Others began living in the camps when Durban was hit by flooding in 2017 and 2019.

City officials moved Themba Lushaba, 34, and his family to a one-room house of tin and drywall in 2009, to make way for the World Cup infrastructure. Thirteen years later, Mr. Lushaba is still waiting for that permanent dwelling.

The settlement in the township of Isipingo is wedged between a field and a noisy highway, with a maze muddy alleyways between the home. It flooded in 2011, 2017, 2019. This year, the water was waist high.

“It hurts me to stay here,” he said. “It’s dirty all over.”

Some are still living in tents, waiting for government promises of relief aid that never materialized, said Sibusiso Zikode, a housing activist and one of the leaders of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a shack dwellers movement concentrated in KwaZulu-Natal, the province where the rains and flooding occurred.

“Those people were never attended to. They remain destitute,” said Mr. Zikode. This latest disaster has not only brought repeated material losses for these victims, it has renewed the trauma of displacement, he said.

When the new settlements are built, they must be erected on ground that is not vulnerable to flooding, officials have said. Informal settlements, as shack communities are called in South Africa, are often erected on land that is open, accessible and vulnerable to disaster, like low-lying areas or on riverbanks.

As housing officials scout for land, they will have to compete with industry, said a spokesman for housing. Durban, which is on South Africa’s east coast and home to one of the continent’s largest harbors, also suffered significant industrial losses. Reopening the port is a priority. In a country where more than a third of the population is unemployed, the officials also have to find land that is affordable, near amenities like hospitals and close to job opportunities.

The government is also trying to be more efficient than in the past. Rebuilding after the 2017 floods was slowed by a complicated process for awarding government contracts, said Mr. Baloyi. Designed to empower Black-owned businesses and create transparency in public contracts, the process has been troubled by corruption in Durban and throughout the nation.

This time around, South African officials hope that President Ramaphosa’s Monday declaration of a national state of disaster will speed up the recovery. The government has introduced a voucher system that allows flooding victims to buy their own building materials and reduces reliance on the government.

“That will make them go back home sooner than if we have to wait for government to repair every home,” said Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who leads the ministry coordinating the disaster relief.

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