Mandela's Soweto home town at the mercy of South Africa's extreme weather

Houses on the banks of the Klip river are bearing the brunt of more downpours

The Klip river has flooded more than a dozen times since 2010. Getty Images
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Each time it rains, Khaya Kekana worries about what could happen to his family home.

“The floods have left us traumatised. Every time, we lose things, we have to start again,” Mr Kekana told The National.

His four-bedroom house, on Coka Street in Orlando, Soweto, lies only three metres from the Klip river which has flooded more than a dozen times since 2010.

At the end of last year, heavy rain caused the river to burst its banks, flooding all 15 homes on the street.

“Last December, we lost everything during the flood,” Mr Kekana said, adding that his home had already been badly flooded in 2010 and 2020, with the water reaching more than a metre high.

No high walls separate the houses from the river and the homes have repeatedly borne the brunt of its overflowing banks.

“The water is dirty and contaminated by sewage,” Mr Kekana explained. “When it enters our homes, there is no escaping; we are sometimes barefoot and have to stand on it in … the dirty, muddy water, picking up germs and suffering breathing ailments.”

Orlando West is an iconic town, the former home of South African president, apartheid activist and Nobel peace prize winner Nelson Mandela.

Now its residents are struggling to keep their homes standing.

Lifelong Soweto resident Pro Tshabalala, 61, says the Coka Street community has repeatedly complained to the municipal government about the flooding to no avail.

“Residents understand climate change, but in our case, we believe that the construction of Klipvalley Road was a case of man interfering with nature, so our flooding is man-made,” he said.

The road was extended in 2009 to serve a city bus service. According to Mr Tshabalala, the authorities diverted the river to accommodate construction of the road.

“Floods were sporadic and minimal before the road extended, but after 2010, we have had constant flooding every second year,” Mr Tshabalala said.

The father of two said the floods have worsened his daughter's asthma. But the community's pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

“This has been going on for the past 15 years, and we have brought this to the attention of all council stakeholders, and meetings have been held where the Johannesburg Roads Agency Environment and Housing Department were present. Promises have been made, but nothing has been done,” he added.

Nthatisi Modingoane, spokesman for City of Johannesburg, told The National that some measures were taken after the 2010 flooding, when the city's roads agency built infrastructure to try to protect communities from further flooding.

He acknowledged that extreme weather events such as floods are likely to happen frequently in the city, attributing them to issues including rivers silting up due to changes in land use.

“These issues were identified as contributing to the change in the natural river path. In other words, the silt build-up has tended to divert the water towards the road [and homes nearby],” Mr Modingoane said.

But the effect of climate change is not limited to Soweto. It has been felt across South Africa.

In April 2022, 448 people died when floods engulfed properties on the north and south coasts of KwaZulu-Natal province, in the east of the country. Nearly 4,000 homes were destroyed, with an estimated 40,000 people displaced, according to the government.

The African continent is prone to natural disasters, with more than 600 incidents of heatwaves, flooding and droughts occurring from 2010 to 2020, according to the World Health Organisation.

This month, the Africa Climate Week summit in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, saw 20 heads of state and government from the continent gather to “deliver climate justice that Africa deserves”, according to Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme.

“Ahead of Cop28, we know this continent comes with a clear voice and a clear commitment to a future where we have a sustainable path to growth,” she added.

Attention is also turning to the health impact of climate change.

Prof Brama Koné, a WHO expert, told The National: “There are noticeable impacts of climate change on health and food security with an increase in mortality attributed to climate-related disasters, risks of pathogens spreading from wildlife to human populations, transmission of vector-borne diseases and allergens related to chronic noncommunicable diseases.”

Mr Koné added that extreme weather such as heatwaves drive malnutrition and increase the risk of food insecurity.

The elderly, women, children, poor communities, migrants and displaced people remain the most vulnerable to climate change, according to a WHO report released in February.

“Climate change is one of the greatest threats to humanity. Good health and the planet's well-being are at risk because of increasingly severe climatic events.

“In Africa, frequent floods and water- and vector-borne diseases are worsening the situation, hence the need for urgent action,” Mr Kone concluded.

Updated: October 07, 2023, 5:42 AM