On Tuesday morning, April 12, around 1:15am a neighbour called my mother-in-law warning her of the rising water in their semi-detached house. Getting out of bed, she stepped into already knee-high water.
Panic-stricken, the family managed to gather a few essentials and get their car out of the yard. Others in the neighbourhood were not so lucky as they climbed over walls to get into higher properties to escape the gushing waters or stood helpless atop tables and other furniture as their homes flooded, unable to get out and fearing the worst. Some families in their neighbourhood of Springfield, Durban, lost loved ones in mud slides.
Fifteen minutes after my family left their house, banks collapsed in the district and a mudslide engulfed their house. Two days later when the flood subsided, but the danger was still present, we entered the house and salvaged some documents and clothes. That was all we could save.
Everything else in the house – irreplaceable mementoes, much treasured furniture passed down through generations, groceries and clothes – were in a heart-breaking heap of mud-covered, water-drenched and fast-moulding mess. But more than that, for many the biggest loss is a sense of place, especially in communities like Springfield where the descendants of market gardeners – the first inhabitants relocated by the apartheid government to the area mainly from the Tram and Magazine Barracks – still live. There is a pervading sense of despair and hopelessness in this close-knit community where many have lived through floods more than once in their lifetimes.
Ironically, among the documents saved was a 35-year-old settlement letter from the then-Chairman of the Disaster Relief Fund which allocated R1 406-00 to my mother-in-law for losses she suffered in the 1987 flood damage. In a further cruel irony, it was just last year that the furniture damaged in these floods were finally restored only to be now destroyed in the mudslide.
As we filled sandbags to protect what was left of the home and redirect the storm and sewage waters flowing around our ankles in the mud strewn streets, I recalled the words of Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados.
She was pleading for action with nations at the UN climate jamboree in Glasgow in November ’21. She spoke of the suffering from the impacts of climate change and reciting the words of Eddie Grant she asked: “Will they mourn us on the frontline”. I now reflected on the reality of the frontline. I am not only a campaigner advocating for climate justice, but I am also an individual on the frontline living climate injustice.
As campaigners within groundWork, we have advocated since the 90’s that we need to urgently shift from fossil fuels. In 2005 we started conversations on alternative energy that laid the foundations for the discussions on the just transition. In 2010, together with Earthlife Africa, residents from Lephalale and 192 organisations globally, we called on the World Bank not to grant Eskom the $3.75 billion loan to build more polluting coal fired power stations but rather that there should be concrete plans made for a ‘just transition’, towards increased energy for the poor and well-paid “green jobs”. We were vehemently opposed by the ministers of finance, energy and public enterprises.
Since 2011 we have worked with workers and unions calling for a just transition and over the last few years, together with coal affected community partners and the Life After Coal campaign, we have developed an Open Agenda for the Just Transition. A transition that recognises the fact that for us to have a future where we will live well with each other and the earth, we have to build it upon a base of equality between people. And it must come with service delivery, infrastructure development, housing, health systems and decent jobs that are resilient to the world we live in, which is a world in which climate change is now a daily reality.
The one in hundred-year flood is a misnomer from the past that has changed irrevocably. Consider the reality that Durban was hit by flooding in 2022, 2019, 2017, 2007 and 1987. The floods of the last years have broken daily rainfall records, with last week’s rain deluge dropping about a third of Durban’s annual rainfall on the 11th of April.
How do we respond to this reality? Government has been warned repeatedly and it is not a surprise that people are angry. People in my mother’s-in-law neighbourhood complain about the lack of democracy, how they are never heard, how the many calls to the council about blocked stormwater and sewage systems are ignored.
The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, organising across Durban has, since 1995, repeatedly called for a disaster preparedness plan, a disaster management plan to manage the damage when it happens, and a disaster recovery plan to learn from the mistakes and build a better city. They have been ignored. It is now time for an open democracy, where people and government speak with each other, and government does not hide behind laws and practice exclusion. Come speak to the people where they have lost lives, land and belongings and build a future with them, using the strength of our people. Let’s use this crisis as an opportunity to build a resilient city that serves people first.
As a commissioner on the Presidential Climate Commission, together with some fellow commissioners from the Centre for Environmental Rights, Earthife Africa, and youth and labour, I have visited communities to hear their concerns about climate change and a just transition. And what we have heard was that people are excluded from decisions by local government. They want what was promised them in 1994 – municipal services, housing, roads, schools, health care and clean air and water. Since our first meeting with the President, I have said that for people in townships climate change is about developing services and homes that are resilient.
This flood showed us why this is urgent. The Commission must now seek to act with urgency to advise how South Africa stops the madness of relying on fossil fuels, ensure that as a society we adapt to a climate change reality and develop a resilient economy that serves people first.
If we are going to have restorative, distributive and procedural justice, as the Commission wants, it must start with an open democracy where people are heard, and their issues engaged with. It is only through such a process that trust can be built.
Come to the frontlines and fill the sandbags. Let us respect nature and use the crisis as an opportunity to build a new and open democracy.
By Bobby Peek (Activist, Director groundWork – Friends of the Earth South Africa and Commissioner on the South African Presidential Climate Change Commission)