south africa floods

There is a consistent disaster of floods that keeps happening in South Africa and it is killing hundreds of people on every occasion. The national media does not publicise these disasters enough, largely because they are occurring in poorer areas where black people reside – and their consequences do not affect the country’s economy. This is usually how discourse is organised in South Africa. Issues receive national attention when they begin to affect the upper-middle class and the international media is also arranged under the same pattern.

For the past 12 months in South Africa, there has been four major episodes of floods that have hit the Black areas of the country.

In January 2022, close to 20 people died in Mdantsane township and in Duncan Village near East London where floods swept the informal settlements located on the outskirts of the city. A grade 12 matric pupil, Yonela Pamla, who was about to receive her final schooling results on the following day in order to qualify for university studies was one of the people who died in the tragedy including a police captain diver, Pierre Marx.

In June 2022, over 460 people died in another flooding disaster that happened in KwaZulu Natal, a coastal province located on the eastern region of the country near the Indian ocean. The death toll here included massive damage to schools, clinics, community centres and to basic infrastructure. The affected people were moved to temporal shelters and community halls whilst the government was making alternative housing arrangements for them. Till this day, these people have not received any sustainable help from the government.

In September 2022, a mine wall collapsed in Jagersfontein, a small town located in the central province of the Free State, and it flooded the whole settlement. Houses were swept under mud and water, four people died, four people went missing, and more than 40 people were rushed to hospital for sustaining injuries.

The latest flooding disaster occurred this week in January 2023 in Mogale City near Johannesburg. The entire community and its infrastructure was has been swept under water and this has also affected electricity cables in the area. The number of people who are dead, missing and injured has not yet been published by government to the public.

Many other similar incidents that occur at a small scale across the country especially in remote villages are never reported. These disasters are happening at consistent rates these days in South Africa largely due to changing weather patterns resulting from climate change. Temperatures are becoming extremely hot in the country and the sea levels are also rising.

A research study published in February 2022 by Lesley Allison, Matthew Palmer and Ivan Haigh in the Environmental Research Communications journal showed that the rises in South African sea levels are 7% – 14% higher than the global average. These revelations on their own show that the country is in the middle of a climate crisis and an urgent reduction in its gas emissions amongst other interventions is required.

Nevertheless, from these four major floods incidents that have hit the country in the past year, two of them have happened in the coastal area whereas the other two were inland. But all of them had four common threads:

  • Black people were the affected victims with a high number of deaths, loss of belongings and livelihoods plus displacements,
  • it was mainly the informal settlements built on the outskirts of the city that are affected, and these also involved mining towns were cheap labour resides in the most precarious living conditions,
  • the flooding had ripple effects in the surrounding environment, such as the damage of the mining dam walls in Mogale City and Jagerfontein causing massive damage and diseases to the victims residing in the area and their children,
  • government has been failing to assist victims with shelter and aid which highlights its gross unpreparedness to deal with disasters and post-disaster social responsibilities.

The causes behind these tragedies are twofold.

Firstly, South Africa remains an apartheid society until this day. The provision of housing and land is still categorised according to race. White people own houses in the most developed areas of cities and their residential areas are located on the most safe and conducive parts of the land space.  Black people on the other hand as the poor, unemployed and underemployed cheap labour reside on the underdeveloped margins of the city. This continuity of colonial geographies and apartheid spatial relations confirms South Africa’s identity today as being a neo-apartheid state.

Secondly, this neo-apartheid design of present day handicaps government from driving transformative interventions that bring meaningful relief to affected Black people. Every other disaster that occurs in the country ends up affecting Black people as a result of how colonialism and apartheid had initially designed the place to dispense socioeconomic disadvantages to Black people.

When South Africa became a democracy, it did not change these apartheid spatial relations at all. Instead, it continued with them by ensuring that quality public services and the building of newly integrated human settlements is not done adequately and drastically for Black people who are actually the victims of apartheid and the majority of the population. This structural problem, when compounded with the overall crisis of unemployment and inequality in the country – it exacerbates racial inequality and keeps the country intact as a neo-apartheid society.

In this regard, with the climate change crisis being recently forecasted by the 2023 Global Risk Report of the World Economic Forum as a leading cause of conflict, human devastation, poverty, displacement and rising living costs for the year ahead – it becomes a dangerous factor for a country like South Africa that still has underling colonial questions to deal with.

Even worse, South Africa is the economic heart of Africa and challenges of this scale therefore can pose an existential risk for the global South if they are left unattended in major multilateral conversations.

 Dr Pedro Mzileni is a sociology lecturer at the University of the Free State in South Africa

Email – MzileniM@ufs.ac.za

Twitter – @PedroMzileni


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