We have, in recent weeks, witnessed the devastation as multiple cold fronts hit Cape Town. We knew it was on the way because on 29 June 2021, the South African Weather Services warned us of a coming storm to the magnitude of an Orange Level 8. Gale force winds, predicted in the warnings, reached intense gusts of between 100 and 140km/h. With it came the incessant pelting of heavy rains that caused severe damage and flooding to communities – those in the so-called informal settlements, were hit hardest.
It all ignited a graveyard of memories from a similar storm that hit Cape Town in 2017 where the roofs of the shacks were completely destroyed. It propelled our organization into action and The Shack-building project restored and rebuilt the shacks that were destroyed during the storm of that dreadful winter of 2017..
It now seems as if gale force winds caused by these multiple cold-fronts have since become a common phenomenon in Cape Town and the southern parts of the Western Cape. This time around certainly alluded to it as roads and thousands of homes mostly in informal settlements were destroyed and flooded, trees were uprooted and enormous damage caused to homes and road infrastructure.
The most prominent problem, according to the City of Cape Town, was the unlawfully occupied areas that could not be serviced and where flood mitigation was not possible due to the low-lying terrain including flood plains, wetlands and waterlogged areas. This created a humanitarian assistance vacuum and The Shack-builders seized the opportunity to visit some of these spaces or “unlawfully occupied areas” in “newly formed informal settlements” that have been need-driven created on unsuitable, flood prone land.
According to the Western Cape Department of Human Settlement more than 1000 land invasions happened in the past 10 months. The land invasions on unsuitable land has made it difficult for proper services to be rendered to the people. The land invasions issue has been exacerbated by the increasing housing backlog which stands at 600 000 in the Western Cape alone. This housing backlog has resulted in many social unrest protests and illegal land invasions. It is a complex dilemma.
The Shack-builders’ visit and dialogue with one community leader of Ithembeni Informal Settlement next to the Baden Powell road in Khayelitsha, cast light on the humanitarian crisis. The Ithembeni informal settlement became headlines for a cruelly appalling incident where a man, Bulelani Qolani, while naked, was forcibly removed from of his shack by officers of the Anti-Land Invasion Unit in Cape Town on 1 July 2020. The incident, recorded on video, sparked widespread public outcry for the disrespect and inhumanity inflicted on Mr Qolani. Numerous investigations were launched by the South African Human Rights Commission and the City of Cape Town and a criminal charge was laid against the officers. This incident at Ithembeni Informal Settlement and the manhandling of Bulelani Qolani triggered unnerving questions regarding the plight of people living in “unlawfully occupied areas”. Ithembeni informal settlement has become a regular site of protests marches and the ongoing site of road closures due to the demands of the people living in desperate conditions.
Our visit there allowed us to witness the plight of flood victims in low-lying-, flood-proned- and unlawfully occupied areas after this devastating storm the past week.
The shacks were surrounded by a mass of water. It was a terrible sight of unbelievable proportions to behold. Upon our arrival people could be seen wandering aimlessly around. You could sense the deep levels of despair and hopelessness.
We met community leaders and the spokesperson of the informal settlement. There were no emotional outbursts and anger from them towards our team members. They shared their accounts of what happened during the night of the flooding, recalling how they were in their beds and in the middle of the night when they realized that the water levels had risen in the shacks.
The fear of been stuck in the shack – children crying for help was the toughest.COMMUNITY LEADER
The fear of been stuck in the shack – children crying for help was the toughest. They had to leave their shacks in the dark while walking through the deep waters that flooded the areas while simultaneously battling the gale force winds. People were relieved when they discovered the following day that none of the residents lost their lives during the night of the storm.
One of the residents, Nyameka, took us into the shack of her sister which was flooded, with clothes and utensils still floating on and lying in the water. Some of the soaked clothes were placed on a bed. The water level in the shack was almost 300 mm high creating an indoor swamp. What’s worse, and largely due to the fact that the shack was situated in a low-lying area, it was surrounded by water. By implication, any attempts to use buckets to get rid of the water inside the shack were hopelessly in vain. A more permanent solution: pumping out the water and at the same time utilizing sand bags to keep the surrounding water from flowing back into the shack, was needed.
Nyameka’s sister’s shack was a micro version of the dire situation of many shacks surrounded by water and whose places have been flooded.
Also, while walking through the area, the Shackbuilders Team saw broken and leaking sewage pipes accompanied by the dreadful stench. These are bound to exacerbate the already fragile health and hygiene status of the residents in these broken communities.
The sheer mass of water surrounding the shacks brought an overwhelming sense to the Shackbuilders Team of the magnitude of the problem. Setting aside the governmental and political arguments pertaining to “illegal land invasions”, often launched from cosy comforts, these people are human beings.
It was the understanding of their humanity that promoted the Shackbuilders’ response to their pleas. Instead of passing judgement on people, it was felt necessary to offer help with food, blankets and support.
Ithembeni Informal Settlement has become a microcosm of the larger problem of homelessness. Undoubtedly, it presents a real challenge for a multi-stakeholder intervention, including national government, the city, civil society and business.
I do believe that within an intergovernmental and civil society collaboration a solution beckons – a solution that will need to go beyond the counter-productive blame-game.
A diligent pursuit for a solution must be in the doing, small or big. We have seen and experienced the power of what small acts of kindness to people desperately in need of compassion, can accomplish.
Quinton Adams, Founder The Shackbuilder and The Backyard Varsity.
Cellno. 082 698 5103, firstname.lastname@example.org. www.theshackbuilder.com
Cape Town South Africa