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The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

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The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

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Communities continue to feel impact of Easter weekend floods and landslides

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Eunice Mthethwa holds a picture of her 14-year-old grandson, Velani, who was killed in the April floods. PHOTO: Sarah Harwick ’21

Durban, South Africa — Buyiseile Mthethwa can’t sleep if it’s raining. 

Instead, she lies awake, paralyzed by fear and grief and memories of the night she lost her 14-year-old son. 

“I can still hear Velani crying,” Mthethwa said through a translator, her voice barely a whisper, her eyes looking off into the distance. “I can still visualize the whole thing as if it happened yesterday.”

Mthethwa lives in the Klaarwater community, about 20 miles west of the port city of Durban on the east coast of South Africa in the Kwazulu-Natal province. During the 2019 Easter weekend, Klaarwater was one of many areas in the province inundated by heavy rainfall. In all, the Easter weekend floods and resultant mudslides killed at least 70 people and displaced more than 1,000, according to provincial government reports. The rains most severely impacted people in predominantly black and Indian townships created during the apartheid era, and in the newer informal settlements, communities in Durban that are most vulnerable to extreme weather events.

On Sunday, April 21, it rained all night in Klaarwater. Early the next morning, other members of the Mthethwa household left for work. Velani, his mother, and his grandmother, Eunice Mthethwa, were alone in their home. 

One room of the Mthethwa home is left standing among other personal belongings, including the mattress Velani was sleeping on when a mudslide ripped through the Mthethwa home. PHOTO: Sarah Harwick ’21

At 6 a.m., a river of mud came crashing down the hill from the road above. It smashed into the house, destroying it and burying Velani in his bed where he lay sleeping.

“We tried to assist Velani and remove the stones, but then we had to call for more people to help us,” said Eunice Mthethwa, Velani’s grandmother, through a translator.

When neighbors came to assist with the rescue, they found Velani was still breathing. His mother and grandmother still had hope.

Community members carried him in a blanket up a steep, rugged path to the main road. There were no ambulances to take Velani to the hospital, so his family hired a car that took him to a hospital about eight miles away. 

One hour later, the teenager whose grandmother described him as “a star of his kind,” was pronounced dead.

“He was a humble, down-to-earth young boy, who was a ballroom dancer,” Eunice Mthethwa said. “He was very reserved, and focused on his studies and his dancing.”

Eunice Mthethwa called her grandson Velani, who was killed in the Easter floods at the age of 14, “a star of his kind.” PHOTO: Sarah Harwick ’21

With the help of donations from the community, the Mthethwas erected a zinc shack about 10 feet from the ruins of their former home. At the base of a new path carved by the mudslide is the mattress where Velani used to sleep, its covering tattered and exposed spring coils beginning to rust in the humidity.   

The sight of the destroyed home makes Buyiseile Mthethwa “so so so sad” and “so angry.”

Buyiseile Mthethwa, her husband and her other children decided to move to another part of the community, some distance from the sadness.

“I don’t want to look at the space,” Buyiseile Mthethwa said. “I never come back to the site where it happened.” 

Buyiseile Mthethwa refuses to look at the site where her son Velani was killed during a mudslide. She said the site makes her sad and angry. PHOTO: Sarah Harwick ’21

Eunice Mthethwa, Velani’s grandmother, who stayed behind in the new shack, is sad and angry, too. She said municipal officials had been promising to relocate the Mthethwas since 2010, after a truck slid downhill from the dirt road and onto their property. After the April floods, officials began removing recently installed storm water drainage pipes from the road above the Mthethwa property, she said.

“The municipality does as they please,” Eunice Mthethwa said. “They don’t communicate with the people about what the impact [of what they do] will be.”

Eunice Mthethwa said the family was also offered building materials to rebuild the home. But they have to hire a tractor to level the area and clear the rubble before they can accept the material and begin rebuilding. Right now, the only way to access their home is by foot, along a steep narrow path. A tractor can’t reach them.

 eThekwini municipality officials did not respond to requests for information. 

On the other side of Klaarwater, at Velani’s school, Phakathi Secondary School, damage from the floods is still visible. Part of the roof was destroyed in the Easter weekend storm. Now when it rains and students are in school, they have to move to one side of the room to avoid the water that comes in.

Zanele Nsindane, head of the arts department at Phakathi Secondary School, which remains damaged by the Easter rains, said she is worried about the lack of counseling services for students impacted by the disaster. PHOTO: Sarah Harwick ’21

Zanele Nsindane, the head of the arts department at Phakathi Secondary School, said she and others didn’t think much of the rains at first. It wasn’t until the morning of April 23, when they saw images on television or heard reports on the radio, that they understood what had happened to the most vulnerable of their pupils who live in the settlements.

In addition to Velani’s death, the teachers also learned that 18-year-old Nokwanda Mpanza, a grade 12 student, had been injured, and that Mpanza’s sibling had died. 

At about 2 a.m. on Tuesday, April 23, Mpanza and her mother had been awakened by a loud noise outside their home in Savanna Park, a community that neighbors Klaarwater. 

“My mom called my grandmother to check if someone was there,” Mpanza said. Mpanza’s grandmother’s house is about 20 feet up the hill, within eyesight. “By the time my granny was checking, the house collapsed.”  

Mpanza’s 4-year-old sister Khwezi Mpanza died when the house caved in. Nokwanda Mpanza said the roots of a tree were pulled out during the storm and took the home with them.

Khwezi Mpanza was the youngest of Nokwanda Mpanza’s five siblings and the only other girl. Nokwanda described her as only as a sister would: “sweet and annoying.” She said Khwezi loved singing at church.   

When she spoke of the night she lost her sister, Nokwanda Mpanza cried and buried her face into her hands. 

“I think she lost her breath,” Mpanza said. “She didn’t have scars or anything.”

Up the hill from her grandmother’s house where Mpanza and her family now live, Nokwanda Mpanza stood on a hill of dust and garbage, the spot that marks the site of her old home. 

Nokwanda Mpanza stand with her arts teacher Zanele Nsindane at the site of her family home, which was destroyed in the Easter floods, resulting in the death of her little sister. PHOTO: Sarah Harwick ’21

Mpanza said her younger brothers and other community members spent hours looking for Khwezi after the house collapsed. After two hours, the fire department showed up. But by that point, community members had already found Khwezi. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

Nokwanda’s 5-year-old brother, Samkelo, suffered a head injury that night. He now bears a scar zigzagging across the back of his head. Samkelo, the family said, speaks with his sister in his dreams. Of all his siblings, he was closest in age to her. 

Nokwanda broke her leg that night. With a cast on her leg, she could not manage the 45-minute walk to school for about a month after the storm. 

Nokwanda’s teacher Zanele Nsindane said she worries students like Nokwanda aren’t getting the mental health counseling they need to properly process what happened.

“I think she needs counseling because she has dropped from her studies,” Nsindane said.

When asked how she was doing, Nokwannda looked away.

“I’m coping,” she said. “I just thought I had a sister, and now she’s gone.”

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