KZN: Mr President, govt cannot disappear in a crisis – John Steenhuisen

DA leader says eThewkini mayor went AWOL, while Premier grabbed a water tank for himself

Mr President, government cannot disappear in a crisis

26 April 2022

Note to Editors: The following speech was delivered today in Parliament by the Leader of the Democratic Alliance, John Steenhuisen MP. 

Madam Speaker

Honourable President

Honourable Members

The devastating flood in KwaZulu-Natal has brought immense misery to a part of the country that was still battling to recover from last year’s riots and looting.

We hold the affected communities in our hearts and in our prayers, and we extend our deepest condolences to everyone who lost family, friends and colleagues.

We can rebuild homes and streets and bridges, but we cannot bring back the 435 South Africans who perished in the disaster.

Our priority now lies with bringing humanitarian relief to stricken communities, and to reconnect them to water, electricity and sanitation infrastructure as soon as possible.

It’s been over two weeks since the flood, and many communities are still without water and electricity. In many areas there is still no sign of water tankers, which could’ve easily been brought in from other provinces.

If widespread access to clean water is not resolved urgently we will soon see the outbreak of a second disaster in the form of deadly diseases.

The urgency of restoring these services - and particularly clean water - cannot be overstated.

But someone needs to drive this, and therein lies the problem.

Honourable President, you clearly knew that neither your provincial government in KwaZulu-Natal nor your local government in the metro of eThekwini was up to the task of dealing with this disaster, which is why you declared a National State of Disaster.

Indeed, the eThewkini Executive Committee has met just twice, and the full council is yet to meet, since the floods. The Mayor of eThekwini has been entirely absent these past two weeks, and the Premier’s sole contribution was to hijack a water tanker for his home.

You were right not to trust them.

In your televised address straight after the flood you said that the primary responsibility to coordinate and manage the disaster had been assigned to national government. In theory, this would lift the responsibility off the shoulders of these inept local and provincial spheres of government and allow you to manage the rescue and relief process centrally.

But I say “in theory”, because in the real world this is not what is happening at all. In the real world, no one is managing the process. Everyone has simply run away from the problem, and desperate residents have been left to fend for themselves.

City officials have switched off their phones, the mayor has gone AWOL, councillors are telling panicked residents to eff off on WhatsApp, the Premier grabbed a water tanker for himself, council staff tried to steal care packages donated to rescuers, and when ministers finally arrived on the scene they ended up commandeering helicopters meant for rescue and recovery missions for their own self-important fly-overs.

Amid this chaos, our own DA councillors are trying their best to assist frustrated communities, and they are having to bear the brunt of these frustrations simply because they are the only people there.

Despite your best assurances on television and in this House, there is no coordinated national response at all. Your government is absent.

By declaring a National State of Disaster, and then not stepping in with a national government presence, you have created a dangerous leadership vacuum in a time of great crisis.

And as we saw in the riots last year, when leadership is absent, lawlessness and chaos ensues. Already one City official has been shot and killed at a water tanker filling depot. We dare not let this become a deadly repeat of last July.

Mr President, you said in your address that this situation called for a “massive and urgent relief effort” but two weeks later there is no sign of this effort.

If a Disaster Management Plan exists, no one has seen it.

If there is a Disaster Management Centre - as is mandated by the Disaster Management Act - where all the various response services are brought together into one location, no one has seen or heard of it.

If leaders from national government have indeed been assigned to take the reins and steer the response in KZN, they are operating by extreme stealth, because no one has seen or heard from them.

As we have seen so many times before, the promises you make in speeches bear very little resemblance to what happens in the real world, where it matters.

This is why the motion passed by this House this morning to establish an ad-hoc committee is important. The committee must hold the executive to account, ensure that money is not stolen, and that relief reaches the people it is intended for. This House should never be relegated to the role of spectator in the time of national crisis. We have seen what happens when this government is given unfettered power with no legislative oversight.

If I may offer you some advice, taken from the experience of our own governments in dealing with the drought disaster in the Western Cape, it is this: Be present, be clear and be honest.

Let the people know you’re there and in charge. Let them know exactly what the plan is and update them about this plan as often as you can. And don’t say things that you know won’t happen.

Don’t promise 10,000 soldiers if you’re only going to send 500.

Don’t guarantee that no relief aid will be stolen when you know full well your party has a looting problem.

Don’t describe your relief effort as “massive and urgent” when it is neither of these things.

In the fight against Day Zero, our governments in the Western Cape and the City of Cape Town immediately set up a live dashboard to share real-time information on dam levels and water usage. You need to do something similar to communicate the state of water infrastructure repairs, electricity reconnections, water tanker locations and how often these will be replenished.

People need to know who is in charge of coordinating government's disaster response. Tell them.

Tell them the details of the relief plan: Who is in charge of humanitarian relief, and who is in charge of the next phase - the stabilisation and recovery? This needs to be a clear and published plan.

Tell them where they can report issues in their neighbourhoods, and give them the assurance that these reports will be acted on.

You’re dealing with people who have been through a terrible ordeal and are extremely vulnerable. They need reassurance, and they need to know that they can trust you.

Be present, be clear and be honest.

You cannot disappear in a crisis.

Thank you.

Issued by John Steenhuisen, Leader of the Democratic Alliance, 26 April 2022