“The body will end up decomposing and smelling.”
These were the sombre words of Sizwe Mbotho, a diminutively framed middle-aged man, who stood next to the body of his six-year-old son, Khethokuhle, covered in a white sheet, waiting desperately for hours for emergency services to assist.
He had walked 10 kilometres carrying his son after the little boy lost his life when when the Mbotho family home in the Dassenhoek Area, KwaNdengezi, collapsed due to a landslide amid catastrophic flooding that wreaked havoc in KwaZulu-Natal.
News24 found Mbotho desperately trying to flag down police cars and the very few emergency services vehicles that passed by the road.
All the responses were the same: “We are rushing to other areas where dozens of people have lost their lives there.”
Mbotho said when the torrential downpour started, he was at work, on the nightshift.
“I received a phone call informing me in the early hours of the morning that there had been an accident that had happened at home. When I made my way back home in the morning, I was informed that our two-room house had collapsed, and my wife and two kids had been buried under the debris.
“Fortunately, my wife and our other child survived the incident, but when my wife tried to go back into the house, our deceased son was buried under a pile of soil and rocks. We tried to dig and save him, but we could not get to him on time.
“Because the emergency services could not access the area, untrained neighbours took it upon themselves to try and assist. They tried to dig him out using picks and shovels, and that also could have resulted in him suffering further harm if there is a possibility that he may have still been alive.”
Mbotho said by the time they found Khethokuhle, he was lifeless.
He said:When we got to where his body was, he had already lost his life. I then called the police, who said due to the inaccessibility of the area, they would not be able to get to where we were, so we had to carry the lifeless body over 10 kilometres to the main road.
He added that he did not know what was taking the emergency services so long to come and fetch his son.
As Mbotho waited, about six of his neighbours emerged from the road leading into the Dassenhoek area carrying the body of his 35-year-old neighbour.
The two grieving families greeted and exchanged condolences.
Eventually, two police officers from Mariannhill police station driving along the main road in a white double-cab bakkie came to their aid, agreeing to take the bodies to the police station for documentation and eventually to the mortuary.
A group of residents stood, wide-eyed and in silence, as the bakkie that was already carrying one deceased person, loaded the two bodies at the back of the vehicle.
With nowhere to sit at the front of the double cab, Mbotho, racked with grief, jumped into the back of the truck and sat with the three bodies.
An onlooker exclaimed as Mbotho climbed in with the bodies: “Their [the people living in the impoverished Dassenhoek area] have had their dignity stripped away while they were alive and still in their death, they are even denied that dignity and are carried around in an open van one body on top of the other.”
Within a kilometre of where Mbotho’s son and the deceased neighbour were picked up, the bakkie stopped to pick up two more bodies.
In less than 10 minutes, the body count was up to five, and when the bakkie reached the police station, the carnage from the downpour was evident – at the Mariannhill mobile police station alone, there were at least 10 bodies when News24 arrived.
Dozens more family members were at the police station to request emergency services assistance as their loved ones were either still trapped under the rubble or missing after being swept away by the rain.
Residents who spoke to News24 said they believed the number of those who had died was far greater than the 45 being communicated by authorities.
“There is no premier, MEC, MMC, or councillor that has set foot here since the floods and landslides occurred this morning so we are not sure where they are getting this figure of theirs,” said one community member.
While the police station’s communications officer was not available to confirm how many deceased individuals had been brought to the station, some officers present told News24 that on Tuesday, the station had received “almost 20 bodies”.
KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala, who visited Hammarsdale in Durban, said the official number of confirmed deaths were 45, with scores still missing.
eThekwini mayor Mxolisi Kaunda on Tuesday afternoon also cited the number of deceased individuals across the province as 45, adding that the storm was different from previous ones experienced in the province.
“This storm is all over the city. So, we are working tirelessly with all our multi-disciplinary teams to clear the infrastructure – the roads that have been blocked as well as our own infrastructure of water and electricity, which is interrupted.”
The eThekwini municipality said rescue operations were continuing to assist residents impacted by flooding caused by heavy rains, but processes were being frustrated by blocked roads as a result of landslides and flooding.
“Disaster management teams are navigating difficult and dangerous scenarios in the area, rescuing stranded people. We are working with communities, different stakeholders, businesses, and churches to try to ensure that we become more responsive, especially to those communities that are really in need during this period,” said Kaunda.
Mbotho and some of the family members at the police station said their concern was that should the rains continue as per the weather reports, “more people might die” as the land they were residing on was already unstable from Monday’s downpour.
“There is also no way for the emergency services to reach us at this point,” said Mbotho.