Who dropped the Rain Bomb on Durban last month? And will they pay climate reparations?

By Des D’Sa and Patrick Bond

May 31, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The third-largest city in South Africa, Durban, has had a hellish month. The climate catastrophe witnessed in the city and surrounding areas left terrible wounds that residents here have not yet recovered from. The 350mm of rain that pounded many areas of the province in a 24-hour period on April 11-12 more than doubled the ferocity of the prior record: the Easter 2019 Rain Bomb. Scientists confirm last month’s event is now twice as likely to occur than in prior generations, as an attributable result of climate change.

KwaZulu-Natal province counted more than 500 dead (including 57 children). There were 128 932 people displaced, from 17,438 households, as well as hundreds of wrecked schools still unable to cater for 320,000 young scholars, and overall at least $1.6 billion in infrastructure and housing destroyed. Those are official figures released on May 15, but no doubt an underestimate.

The main state funding needed beyond emergency relief, to repair the damage and rebuild for the next storm hasn’t arrived. According to provincial minister of local government, Sipho Hlomuka, by May 11, in spite of promises from the Presidency and Treasury, only $63 million was set aside, but even so, “We have not received the allocated funds. However, we are in talks with provincial and national Treasury on processes we need to follow to receive those funds.”

The Treasury expects provincial departments to engage in creative accounting, rearranging budgets so as to move around already-allocated funds from state resources already depleted by austerity. Since late 2020, Treasury has engaged in the most brutal social-spending reduction in living memory, such as an annual 5% after-inflation cut to public healthcare in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic in which more than 300,000 South Africans died, one of the world’s highest per capita mortality rates. Treasury officials refuse to compensate for Rain Bomb damage and new adaptation expenses because that would raise the annual fiscal deficit, in spite of it falling from 9.9% of GDP to 5.2% over the last two years.

This is partly explained by a July 2020 deal with the International Monetary Fund, which meant that, in exchange for a $4.3 billion loan, the then Finance Minister – Tito Mboweni – committed to running a budget surplus (before interest) by 2024. As the IMF insisted to Mboweni, “There is a pressing need to strengthen economic fundamentals and ensure debt sustainability by carrying out fiscal consolidation...” Global North governments with influence over the IMF should be ashamed of imposing a fiscal squeeze on what the World Bank admitted a few weeks ago, is still the world’s most unequal society.

As for housing, budget cuts have prevented the mass housing programme needed for the nearly 20,000 houses urgently required, not to mention replacements for hundreds of thousands of other, vulnerable shack dwellings across the province. Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu adopted what can be termed a “build back worse” approach, in line with World Bank advice.

So, instead of the state engaging in a standard public housing strategy, with well-built, well-located homes, it is reverting to what early 1990’s activists derided as “blacks like shacks” and “toilets in the veld”. This will compound the errors of Durban city management: houses that are self-built on the cheap, prone to collapsing on inhabitants during increasingly common Rain Bombs.

Even more basic infrastructure remains kaput. Many areas of Durban were without water for weeks, with at least 5% of the city’s 3.5 million residents still not served today. Just next to Durban’s main airport – King Shaka International – in the predominantly black town of Tongaat, thousands of families must apparently still wait months for a pumping station repair, which resulted in vigorous community protests in early May.

When touring hard-hit areas of South Durban last week, we saw not only residual evidence of destruction, but also the spirit of mutual aid embodied in ordinary people and their community groups, sites of religious worship, youth clubs and neighbour-to-neighbour relations. We appreciate Gift of the Givers. In the shack settlements we see Abahlalibase Mjondolo (AbM) organising and wisely using the relief they are receiving.

But more funds – which can be considered “climate reparations” – are needed, urgently. With a few exceptions, there is no evidence of generosity from those who dropped the Rain Bomb on Durban: fossil fuel companies and other high-emitting corporations, the Global North’s top 10% wealthy individuals (including several million over-consuming South Africans), or embassies from the high-polluting countries (a Scandinavian ambassador told one of us that such donations are difficult because funds are being diverted from Africa to Russia’s victims in Ukraine).

Meanwhile, South Africa’s national government and Durban municipality are still trying to attract new high-polluting factories, more international airlines and a massive expansion of shipping.

State hypocrisy

Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana made a revealing statement on May 5: “Durban to me is an eyeopener. In 2019, we had similar floods and they’ve come back on a mighty scale. We kind of did a patchwork when we were making our response there. We were not saying how do we make sure that we build resilience in Durban so that when the floods come back, we are in a better position.”

Yet because of Godongwana’s austerity programme, funds to cover both what is termed “Loss and Damage” and climate-proofing “adaptation” costs are desperately needed, but not available. For those ready to give up on the state, especially because Durban has had notorious corruption problems for two decades, substantial outside funding has gone directly to the people affected through organisations like Gift of the Givers and AbM.

There are increasing concerns about resource abuse within the municipality and province, of course, but it is noteworthy that even here in disgraced former president Jacob Zuma’s home base, the November 2021 local elections provided the ruling party just 42% voting support, its lowest level since democracy began here in 1994.

On the one hand, President Cyril Ramaphosa deserves credit for visiting the scenes of destruction nearly immediately, where he said to distraught low-income people, “This disaster is part of climate change. It is telling us that climate change is serious, it is here. We no longer can postpone what we need to do, and the measures we need to take to deal with climate change.”

Yet on May 10, appearing before big business at African Mining Indaba, he told the fossil companies what they wanted to hear: “Countries on the African continent need to be able to explore and extract oil and gas in an environmentally responsible and sustainable manner.”

But there is no such thing, with climate catastrophe now an existential threat to organised life on the planet.

Instead of extracting oil and gas, the continent needs payments by high-polluting countries so as to justify leaving fossil fuels underground. One precedent came from Ramaphosa’s climate negotiators, who squeezed $8.5 billion in concessional finance commitments from the West (supposedly) to decarbonise the filthy electricity parastatal Eskom and thereby leave its Mpumalanga-sourced coal underground, at the Glasgow climate summit last November.

However, Eskom’s plan also entails using 44% of “Just Energy Transition” funds for methane gas projects, leaving Climate Justice Charter Movement activists to call for a financial boycott of Eskom. And the United States, British, German and French governments offering the new loans have a hidden agenda: getting the near-bankrupt Eskom to repay the same governments’ state financiers (and the World Bank) vast sums for two 4800 MW coal-fired power plants (Medupi and Kusile) that, in spite of well-known corruption on the projects involving Hitachi, were financed during the 2010s.

Another shocking reflection of climate irrationality came the day before, in a May 9 decision by Environment Minister Barbara Creecy regarding a 200MW methane gas project at the Indian Ocean port industrial zone of Coega. She acknowledged objections to the high-emissions facility by groundWork and the Centre for Environmental Rights: “Climate change impacts during the lifecycle of the Project are of high significance, and even ‘with mitigation’, remain irreversible and can only be mitigated ‘to a limited extent.”

Nevertheless, Creecy concluded, “I am satisfied that environmental impacts associated with the proposed Coega Gas-to-Power Plant have been critically investigated, assessed, appropriately mitigated and considered,” and so she approved the polluting plant.

Other groups remain in dispute with Creecyata port further north – Richards Bay– over her support for proposed 3000MW Eskom and 400MW private gas-fired power plants, as well as her approval of offshore gas drilling. In the latter cases, community groups (and Greenpeace) are fighting Shell, Total and local oil man Johnny Copelyn’s Impact Africa, and are supported by law firms Natural Justice, Cullinan and Associates, the Centre for Environmental Rights and the Legal Resources Centre.

A city unprepared

The same injustices were evident when COVID-19 raged through the communities, for wealthy and lighter-skinned populations were taken far better care of. Government officials should be capable of race and class analysis, yet they never release statistics; still, all of society knows that the Rain Bomb victims last month were disproportionately those with darker skins, and women, and the youth and elderly.

These victims are also the South Africans who did not cause the climate crisis, because we can be sure that their annual emissions of greenhouse gases are far below the 8.3 tonnes per person in this country, which is still among the world’s highest emitters (third highest when measured as a share of per capita GDP in countries with more than ten million residents).

Climate injustice in Durban means the victims were never prepared, as they didn’t know this sort of crisis would visit them. Aside from South Durban activists providing climate education in the schools and at protests, the municipality and Department of Education are completely slack on adaptation measures in the low-income areas, especially those that are steep-sloped and low-lying in flood plains.

The purported climate experts are just as slack, even those in the United Nations who praise Durban for climate-proofing. After the October 2017 Rain Bomb – an extremely destructive flood, with 4.3 inches falling in one day, killing more than a dozen, from which no lessons were apparently learned – the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was still praising Durban. The organisation’s fifth major IPCC report (in 2018) included this comment: “Individual political leadership in municipal government, for example, has been cited as a factor driving the adaptation policies of early adapters in Quito, Ecuador, and Durban, South Africa.”

Nothing could be further from the truth, since Durban’s greenwashing former mayor Zandile Gumede – winner of a WWF “One Planet Award” in 2018 (several weeks after newspapers reported on her imminent arrest for solid-waste procurement corruption) – had done absolutely nothing to provide climate adaptation support to the homeless who then built on or near steep slopes.

In Quito, the same thing happened, and on January 31 this year, 75mm fell in a few hours, causing landslides that killed 28 people. Again, climate-proofing of the low-income residential areas was somehow forgotten by irresponsible Ecuadorean municipal authorities who were praised by the UN IPCC.

Ramaphosa himself confessed this on May 15 when addressing Durban businesses: “We need a complete overhaul in infrastructure as well now that we know we are susceptible to climate change vagaries on the eastern seaboard of our country as well as on the western side where the droughts are quite severe. Our collective state of readiness for natural disaster must be drastically improved and disaster-risk assessments by all provinces must be regular and ongoing.”

As a result of Durban officials’ incompetence, he added, “There will now be a clear expectation that municipalities and provinces and departments should develop, update, review and submit disaster management and contingency plans to the National Disaster Management Council. Mechanisms to improve access to provincial and municipal disaster relief funding are being addressed.”

Umhlanga’s elites prosper

The same contradictions were illustrated in municipal service delivery for KwaZulu-Natal provincial premier Sihle Zikalala, who lives in the upscale seaside suburb of La Mercy: the hijacking of a water tanker just to serve his own house instead of a community hall. Similar privileges were supplied elsewhere along the beachfront, up to and beyond the new elite edge city of Umhlanga.

For example, Vivian Reddy is about to launch his $280 million Radisson Blu Umhlanga Oceans five-star hotel in the city’s richest suburb, in part thanks to generous public subsidies. He had close ties to the corrupt nexus around Zuma (e.g. serving as a funder of his Nkandla palace including as a conduit for what a judge declared were bribes made by French arms dealer Thales).

Yet Reddy was featured in a May 7 CNBC show during the Africa Travel Indaba at the International Conference Centre, entitled “Rebuilding the tourism sector in Durban”. He bragged to the audience: “We’re building 600 apartments, and every week we’re selling 10 to 12 apartments. Very expensive… We’re creating massive presidential suites that’s going to be the biggest in South Africa… If you look at the Porsche, Umhlanga Rocks became the best-selling dealership in the whole of Middle East and Africa. Durban is buzzing, Durban has got money.”

Such hedonism, in one of the world’s most unequal cities just after more than 400 people died mostly in shack settlements, is a sign of the times. But the interviewer unconsciously put her own finger on the problem when wrapping up: “Durban caught off guard in terms of the floods, but it certainly made us relook at how we how we do come back stronger, just given the fact that there is a consensus that the flooding that we did see, I mean perhaps it’s not the last of it just yet, given the heightened risks of climate change.”

But the elites building promoting luxury developments and international tourism – such as the municipal Economic Development and Planning Cluster’s $29 million “Durban Eye” ferris wheel next to the city’s harbour, where rising sea water will submerge its base soon enough – are simply not having a serious relook.

To be fair, one ruling-party politician –Nkosenhle Madlala, in charge of Durban tourism – did concede, “We need to start caring for environment and ensure that we travel in a responsible way that reduces our carbon footprint.” Yet he still advocates Durban’s “economic development” policy be based on international air travel: the least responsible method of tourism, and highly vulnerable not just to the next pandemic but also when Western countries start applying long-overdue carbon taxes on long-haul flights.

Pay the climate debt!

Also to be fair, two of South Africa’s leading local fossil-fuel owners did give generously to the rehabilitation of Durban: Patrice Motsepe of African Rainbow Coal ($1.9 million) and Mike Teke of Seriti Coal ($6,300). But others in the same fossil class have not yet followed, including Phutuma Nhleko, who in 2016 bought Ramaphosa’s Shanduka empire including its coal assets, and who also owes South Durban residents ecological debt for his 26% share of an ultra-polluting refinery, Engen, which had to close after blowing up in late 2020.

Another is July Ndlovu who heads Thungela (formerly called Anglo Coal), a firm whose share valuation rose by ten times over the past year, as the local coal price soared from $67 to more than $300/tonne in part because of Russia’s Ukraine invasion. Two other tycoons in the same boat are Mxolisi Mgojo at Exxaro Coal, and Bridgette Radebe at Mmakau Coal Mining.

These so-called “Black Diamonds” are enormously wealthy – in a sea of poverty – because of soaring fossil fuel prices, as capitalism rewards those engaged in planetary destruction. They were beneficiaries of a recent coal asset gimmick known as pass-the-trash: vast environmental liabilities were sold to them – financed with expensive debt – by Ivan Glasenberg from Glencore in Switzerland, Mark Cutifani from Anglo American in London, and the owners of the former Afrikaner-led Gencor which merged into Australia’s BHP Billiton. The firms had divested to the Black Diamonds under pressure from financiers and in turn from climate activists.

Now the African National Congress wants the state to follow in their pass-the-trash footsteps, by buying the Sapref refinery in South Durban from British oil firms BP and Shell. Sapref was fortunately shut on March 31, less than two weeks before the Rain Bomb, since it cannot produce sufficiently clean petrol, but it still admits to massive leakage as the flooding undermined its oil storage tanks.

These firms’ payment of historic climate debt is overdue, instead of just laying that responsibility on only Motsepe and Teke. Since the Loss and Damage demands by African civil society and some official African delegations are going to be front-and-centre in November at the first African UN climate summit – in Egypt – since South Africa incompetently hosted the 2011 event in Durban, reminders of the recent Rain Bomb and the desperate need Africans have for climate reparations will reappear again and again.

Another business leader who should know better is Business Unity South Africa CEO Cas Coovadia – once a grassroots anti-evictions leader during apartheid – who on May 8 said, of the Durban Rain Bomb, “Government must also ensure we learn lessons from this, including ensuring people don’t rebuild structures on river banks, and work on early-warning mechanisms.” That’s certainly true, but the municipality and local ruling party already engage in brutal displacement of low-income people from their modest houses, even evicting desperate shack settlers in communities in recent weeks, without making alternative accommodation available.

And in terms of the Rain Bomb’s lessons, Coovadia should recognise this crisis emanated from greenhouse gas emissions, yet his organisation – supported by the National Business Initiative and key officials in the Presidential Climate Commission – are working together to push Eskom’s transition from coal to methane gas, which is 85 times more potent over the next two decades than CO2.They still cannot accept the obvious: a full-fledged national grid made up of renewable solar and wind energy (plus storage) is needed as soon as possible, for as Africa’s leading youth climate advocate Vanessa Nakate recently wrote, “gas exploration and gas-fired power infrastructure in Africa are robbing us of vital time to switch to clean energy.”

But in terms of climate destruction, the most dangerous threat comes from billionaire Johnny Copelyn, who during the 1970s-80s organised clothing and textile workers in South Durban factories. Now, as chair and the major investor in Impact Oil & Gas (a London shelf company), he has an alliance with Paris-based Total to explore offshore Namibia, and last month allegedly discovered 13 billion barrels of oil and 10 trillion cubic feet of gas. Copelyn and Total could take gross revenues of $450 billion from the oil alone, but when it is burned, the cost would be more than $10 trillion (due to a Social Cost of Carbon of $3000/tonne).

In addition to paying climate reparations, lessons of the Rain Bomb include halting the destructive offshore oil and gas projects of Shell, Total and Impact Africa, and forcing Eskom to build a fully-renewable electricity generation system plus non-invasive storage (such as pumped hydrostorage). Andan even more intimidating enemy looms: offshore South Africa in the Antarctic region, Russian Rosgeo explorers (using Cape Town as a base) last week claimed to have identified 500 billion barrels of oil and gas.

Demonstrations will continue, including against Copelyn’s main Durban casino on the beachfront on May 21, and at the Johannesburg branch of the African Development Bank on May 25. The simple demand: South Africa’s terribly wounded society be healed with an economic development strategy that shuns the fossil fuels and elite tourism that the ruling class appears addicted to.

The struggle is global in scale, though it is already hitting the poorest in Africa especially hard. The last word – summing up the continent’s predicament, one felt so acutely here in Durban – goes to Nakate:

Cyclones linked to climate change have devastated Mozambique in recent years. Drought has left millions of people hungry in the Horn of Africa. Flash flooding in Uganda disrupts our lives more and more frequently now. This is what we are experiencing already at 1.2C of warming above pre-industrial levels. Going beyond 1.5C of warming will be a death sentence for many in Africa. The International Energy Agency says that in order to stand a chance of meeting our 1.5C target, we need to stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure – including gas infrastructure – immediately. Africa is responsible for less than four percent of historic global emissions – we are not the ones who caused this crisis. We want climate justice.

Des D’Sa coordinates the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance; Patrick Bond teaches at the University of Johannesburg Department of Sociology.