JOHANNESBURG — The death toll from several days of punishing rain that drenched the city of Durban and the surrounding areas near South Africa’s east coast rose to more than 250 on Wednesday, prompting criticism from residents that the government had failed to prepare for what are now increasingly frequent storms.
Although the rain in the region stopped on Tuesday, officials were still trying to fully assess the massive human and infrastructure toll as rescue crews rummaged through muddy hillsides in search of the missing. The dayslong rain was reminiscent of weather around this same time in 2017 and in 2019 but brought more destruction, washing away bridges, leaving gaping holes in roadways, and sweeping homes and shacks from their foundations.
Residents and community leaders recalled promises made by local officials to improve drainage systems, strengthen roadways, and move shack settlers into more stable housing and away from flood-prone areas. But those pledges were not fulfilled, they said.
“When infrastructure fails it leads to human catastrophe,” said Sbu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a shack dwellers movement concentrated in KwaZulu-Natal, the province where the rain and flooding occurred.
The recent flooding, he added, exposed the government’s “lack of political will not only to invest in the infrastructure development, but also to maintain the infrastructure that we have.”
The steady rain, which came down in droves at times, started late last week and continued almost nonstop through the weekend. Parts of a national highway were flooded and looked like a river.
President Cyril Ramaphosa traveled on Wednesday to KwaZulu-Natal, meeting with provincial leaders and touring affected regions. The devastation has caused 259 deaths, according to the government.
“You have experienced the biggest tragedy that we have ever seen,” Mr. Ramaphosa told residents of one community, according to television news video of his visit.
But the president’s visit only aggravated the emotions of some residents who felt that the government had failed them.
A local official on Tuesday pushed back against the suggestion that the government’s failure led to the devastation.
The storms this year were different from the devastating ones in 2017 and 2019 because those were concentrated in certain areas, according to Mxolisi Kaunda, the mayor of eThekwini, the municipality that includes Durban and the surrounding area. The rain this past week was more widespread and much of the damage and fatalities resulted from landslides, he said at a news conference.
“So therefore, it has got nothing to do with the drainage system,” he said.
That suggestion did little to satisfy residents like Cosmos Khanyeza, who lives just outside Mega City, a shack settlement south of Durban. The severe weather in 2019 wiped out about 70 homes in the settlement, he said. After that, he and other community members wrote to the municipality, requesting help in building permanent housing for those who were displaced. They received no response, he said.
As a result, many of the same families who were affected in 2019 were still living in shacks that were destroyed or severely damaged this time around. He said at least 15 homes in Mega City were swept away by the recent storms.
Mr. Khanyeza, who is 53 and works in construction, doubted that this would be a wake up call for the government.
“Nothing,” he said. “Nothing will happen.”
Lynsey Chutel contributed reporting.