It was a tough week, not gonna lie. I witnessed incredible displays of community, strength, support, and love that were nonetheless tainted by incredible distress, incompetency, and devastation. On Monday June 27th, my host mom’s home was severely damaged by a ruptured water pipe line outside the walls lining her property. And by severely damaged, I mean the entire front yard is now a giant gaping hole in the ground and the bottom level of the house is open to the public by nature of the fact that the interior rooms of the house are, in fact, entirely exposed due to the lack of wall currently located in that position. Even my description of the location of the water main is no longer valid, seeing that there no longer exists a front wall demarcating the lines of the property. I really hope that I can figure out WordPress well enough to include a picture with this post because I really don’t even have the words. The real kicker of the whole situation, however, is that it was 100% completely and totally avoidable.
Running through a timeline of Monday night is extraordinarily difficult, just because so much happened and it’s hard to choose which details are important enough to include. But I’ll do my best. Monday night was supposed to be a big dinner party, including many of Auntie’s friends from around Wentworth, family members, friends from Church, as well as a few people from the program. At around 4:30 PM, we were alerted by the shouts of the neighbors that a water pipe had burst just outside the wall lining the property. At first, we all were laughing as water about two feet deep rushed down our street and onto the main road. It reminded me of rainstorms we used to play in as kids, with people lining the street to watch the water and all laughing together at the absurdity of cars trying to maneuver their way through the flooded street. After a while of soaking in the sight at hand, Dhara went back inside with Auntie Joyce to begin calling the proper authorities while Sierra and I stayed outside to continue watching the mayhem. About an hour after the pipe first burst, Dhara and Auntie Joyce were still trying to get a hold of someone who would respond to the incident, ranging from the many departments of the municipality to the water department itself to private water companies. Meanwhile, Sierra and I watched as a man who was walking by attempted to wade through the water and ended up falling waist-deep in a hole right next to the initial spout. Again, at the time it was comical to see the man who had taken such great care to remove his boots before crossing the flooded sidewalk in order to keep his work uniform clean fall clean through the ground, but the newfound existence of said hole should have been a clue as to what was coming next.
Beginning at around 5:45 PM, the water had been rushing for over an hour and the street began to reach its capacity. At that point, the holes in the wall protecting the house which had originally been dripping water began to gush through due to the sheer volume of water stored behind its mass. In the minutes following this event, the ground both in front of and behind the wall began to collapse. Standing behind the gated property, the first thing to go was the majority of the front yard. Beginning in the middle and slowly stretching to both edges, the grass began to tumble in on itself, revealing the red sand beneath that began to run down the hill and underneath the house. Two fences lined the walkway from the driveway to the front porch; as the ground around them crumbled, their weight became too much as they fractured in multiple places and fell into the growing hole. While this was occurring on our side of the wall, on the other side, the hole had apparently been growing as well. This continued erosion finally ate away at the wall lining the front of the property and it cracked directly down the middle, sliding forward into the hole where the front yard once existed. By this time, Auntie Joyce was on the porch watching open-mouthed as all this was happening. Once Sierra pointed out that it looked as if the house was going next, we all screamed for everyone to get out of the house as the neighbors ran to help. We got all the tenants onto street level, as well as Auntie Joyce and her friend down from the porch. We all stood on the driveway as the entire front wall of the bottom level crumbled to pieces, revealing the living rooms of two separate sub-letters. Items such as couches, televisions, dressers, and tables tumbled forward from the cracking floor into the growing hole. When I returned that Thursday, I ran into one of the renters; she showed me the path the water had taken, running directly below the house and dumping the red sediments at the Church down the hill. The floor of the house was a literal shelf at that point and more of their belongings were still being dumped into the hole as their weight cracked the unsupported ceramic tile. But flashback to Monday night, water still rushed under the floor, as piles of sand and debris were whisked away under the house and out of sight. By this time, many neighbors had gathered around to watch the damage the ruptured water line had caused. As things began to fall, the neighbors began to clear the area around the property due to the potential danger of more things falling. As everyone began to gather down the road from the house, almost everyone around was still dialing all the emergency numbers, but no one receiving any further response other than “We have already been notified.” Cars were still speeding down the road in front of the house, not aware of the spreading cracks in the cement. The bystanders on the street had taken to waving their arms wildly any time a car came near, hoping to slow them down before they got too close. Eventually, some of the neighbors who worked in construction ran to pull out their traffic cones and blocked off the road themselves. This proved to be crucial, as authorities did not show up until 6:30 PM, and only after turning the wrong way down the street. Two hours later. It took two hours for anyone to come and turn off the water. By that time, the damage had unfortunately been done. When I returned on that Thursday, the city had promised that an engineer would come to look at the structure of the house either Monday night or Tuesday morning. He still had not come. Auntie Joyce’s renter showed me new cracks in the house that had not been there on Monday, as well as a curtain that had literally shifted outside the perimeter of the house from its position just within the walls in the time the structural engineer failed to show up.
For those wondering how this clusterfudge of a situation could happen, it is first necessary to explain the organization of the emergency response of the eThekwini municipality. First of all, every person is only recognized by reference number. With every person you call, the first question you are asked is “What is your reference number?” Our reference number was conveniently located next to the landline phone…in the kitchen…in the house…which was currently being destroyed…which was the issue we were calling about. In an emergency situation, it’s hard enough to remember your own address, but having someone resist listening to you speak about an emergency because you don’t have your corresponding administrative reference number is not something that should be happening. The other interesting tidbit about the hierarchy of the municipality is the sheer number of departments that exist. In South Africa, there is no 911 equivalent. Each department has a different phone number you need to dial. And unlike in the United States, it is your responsibility to sort that out. In the time when I personally began calling in earnest, I dialed the emergency police number and was told that this was not their jurisdiction and I should contact the water department. I was then given the water department’s 10-digit phone number, which I had to have her repeat about five times until I remembered. I dialed the number I was given, but turns out the lady had been mistaken and given me the number for the fire department. So the lady for the fire department transferred me to the water department line. Once I finally was able to speak to somebody from the water department, the only response I got was that someone had been notified. When I asked for an estimated time of arrival, I got a simple “I can’t answer that.” When I called back 15 minutes later, I was told that I had called the wrong number and was transferred to an automated operator instead. The third time, I was directly transferred from the police emergency number to the water department, which leads me to question why they made me memorize the number the first time around if there was the capability to transfer. Eventually, we called the local Councilor, which as far as I’ve been able to figure out is the local government official who fixes all the problems that people phone in. The fire department and the Councilor both showed up before the municipality, who is in charge of the water in the first place. In the case of an emergency, it is not the responsibility of the person experiencing the emergency to sort out which department to call. If an emergency number is called, especially with potential danger to human life, it shouldn’t matter which department it is. The fact that the municipality was notified should be enough to get someone from somewhere out there to do something. And again, the municipality didn’t even come until a few hours after the water was shut off. It was the fire brigade who turned off the water in the first place.
The length of time it took for someone to respond to the accident was not a surprise to anyone in Wentworth to whom I’ve mentioned it. I’ve heard story after story about ridiculous wait times for municipality workers, albeit none with such disastrous consequences. I spent a significant amount of my time waiting for the emergency response team talking to a few of Auntie Joyce’s grandchildren. As I was complaining about the wait time, her primary school-aged granddaughter informed me that she wasn’t all that surprised since ambulances can take over an hour to show up as well. There’s been multiple stories I’ve heard since then of violent crime victims who have bled out waiting for emergency medical assistance to arrive. Water is bad enough; medical response is an entirely different ballpark.
This next section I’m hesitant to pen simply because I’ve heard so many variant things from so many different people, but I think it is important to mention because many of the neighbors present did seem to think that neighborhood geography played a role. It’s been amazing to see the many ways that the impact of apartheid still clings to life in South Africa. Wentworth, the area where we’re living, is a historically colored area, and therefore predominantly still considered to be so. The intersections of Quality Street and the nearby neighborhood streets have notoriously bad problems with water pipes; we hadn’t had water the entire weekend before to a water main break in a nearby location and the day after the water pipe outside the corner store 3 houses down burst as well. This bad infrastructure very well could be blamed on the negligence historically given to infrastructure in that area, or, as some have argued, still given to that area. Many people surrounding the house kept muttering, “This would have never happened on the Bluff.” The Bluff is the historically white neighborhood just up the hill from Wentworth bordering the ocean. The Bluff is also considered to be much safer than Wentworth and just be a generally more preferable place to live. Many people contended that the municipality would have been much quicker to respond to a call of those living in the Bluff; the consequences of that statement are rife with implications of both economic classism and racism, which can be traced back to the days of the forced relocation of apartheid. To be fair, however, many people I’ve spoken to have also said that the municipality is just generally incompetent and would not show favoritism to those in the Bluff. Gone are the days when the municipality even had enough resources to play favorites; now, they struggle to meet the demands of their services in every part of the municipality. Personally, I’m not sure what to think. But my inclination is that there is an element of truth to both trains of thought. The municipality might be struggling to provide services across the board, but whose outrage will spur them to action? I can’t imagine the people in the Bluff not having more pull in that situation after seeing the way the following days were handled in Wentworth.
It’s been an unbelievably challenging experience dealing with the aftermath of this event, and I don’t foresee this nightmare of a situation ending anytime soon. Currently, Auntie Joyce and her family are preparing to go to Court to fight for the situation. Newspaper articles are still being published every week in the local papers. The house was only braced recently, and by a family member’s company as opposed to the municipality. There are still cracks growing in the foundation and not a single person staying there has a long-term housing solution. Hearing how the collapse of the house she’s lived in for almost 50 years has impacted Auntie Joyce hits you in the gut every time. Without her incredible faith, I honestly don’t know how she could possibly be handling this. Being helpless to do anything to help substantially after an event like this is what makes an experience like this so challenging. It’s easy to come in as an outsider to the community and criticize the incompetencies of the municipality. It’s easy to forget that we don’t know anything about the government’s resource allocation, or why the high number of departments exists, or why they interact the way they do. I haven’t experienced the attempts to fix the country in the aftermath of apartheid or even been here for longer than a month. And while people here in the community were angry and upset at the municipality’s response to the water main break, no one was surprised. It’s hard to take action against events that people have already accepted as the norm. Throughout this whole process, I’ve been reminded of something I read one time about inventions. It was something to the effect of how the best inventions happen when someone stops accepting the things that we consider inevitable and decides to create a new solution. Although not a perfect analogy as the idea refers to a physical invention as opposed to infrastructure of a government office, the principle of the dangers of accepting unacceptable things as a norm still is directly applicable. In order for change to happen, the people must mobilize. But how to accomplish that is the challenge. And how, and if, I can help in any way is something that is still to be determined.
Watching a house collapse in on itself is not something I hope to ever experience ever again. Watching people become displaced from their home and lose all their possessions to a faulty water pipe is almost indescribable. I don’t even want to know how long it will take to repair all the damage, or even if it will all be repaired. But, as Auntie Joyce’s grandson pointed out after we saw the gaping hole in the side of the house, at least the door was locked.