More than 250 people killed after days of torrential rain in South Africa

President Ramaphosa calls it the worst natural disaster to hit KwaZulu-Natal province

President Cyril Ramaphosa has visited South Africa's flood-ravaged KwaZulu-Natal province to assess the damage caused by days of torrential rains that have left 253 people dead so far, and dozens more missing.

During a visit to affected areas around the provincial capital Durban on Wednesday, he called the natural disaster the worst the eastern coastal province has ever witnessed.

“This is a disaster of enormous proportions. I have spoken to the minister of finance to try and organise finances to assist in the province,” Mr Ramaphosa said, “we are in the process of proclaiming a state of disaster here so we can assist those who have lost their loved-ones and their properties.”

Roads, bridges, electricity and water infrastructure, and hundreds of buildings have been damaged or destroyed since last weekend as an estimated five months of rain fell in less than three days.

The incessant heavy downpours have caused rivers to burst their banks, which has led to raging floodwaters that have swept away houses and caused dozens of deadly landslides.

Pictures circulating on social media show floodwaters in some parts of Durban rising to just below the level of streetlights.

The country’s busiest shipping facility, Durban port, has been closed as a precaution because of the damage done to infrastructure by the deluge. In addition, more than 100 schools in the affected areas have been forced to shut their doors.

‘Biggest worry’

Numerous stories have emerged of people waking in the night to find waist-high waters raging through their homes, forcing them to flee with only the clothes on their back and the few possessions they could carry.

KwaZulu-Natal health official Nomagugu Similane said on Wednesday that the death toll from the disaster had risen dramatically since Tuesday afternoon when it was reported that 59 people had died.

“The biggest worry is the number of bodies we are finding. Our mortuaries are under pressure, but we are coping. As of late last night [Tuesday] we had received 253 bodies in two different mortuaries in eThekwini [municipality, which includes Durban],” she said.

Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Palesa Phili told the online Daily Maverick news platform it was too early to determine the cost of the flooding to the local economy, but the loss of essential infrastructure would be devastating for many sectors.

“Many businesses cannot afford further losses as they are still recovering from the 2021 July unrest and the Covid-19 pandemic,” Ms Phili said.

Hundreds of businesses were destroyed last year when violence and looting erupted in KwaZulu-Natal after former South African president Jacob Zuma was arrested and jailed for being in contempt of a constitutional court order.

In a statement released on Facebook on Tuesday, the provincial government estimated that the damage caused to properties and infrastructure by the storms would run into billions of rand.

KwaZulu-Natal was also subjected to devastating floods around this time of year in 2019 that left 70 people dead. On Wednesday, the weather services said the rains affecting the province would subside until Friday, but then strengthen again over the Easter weekend.

Bill Corcoran

Bill Corcoran

Bill Corcoran is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South Africa