By Pumza Fihlani
South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province is still reeling from the country’s worst floods in 60 years, which killed about 435 people last month. Mass funerals are taking place, although many families are still unable to bury their loved ones because their bodies were swept away by the raging torrents.
Inside a white tent on a hillside just outside Pietermaritzburg, hundreds of people sit with their heads bowed before six coffins. A sombre church hymn pierces through the heavy silence.
The unimaginable happened to the Mdlalose family. Slindile Mdalose, 43, and nine children aged between two and 10 years were killed in the floods that devastated KwaZulu-Natal in the most deadly natural disaster in the country’s history.
They were sleeping when the violent water washed through, flattening their home. It has been three weeks and some of the bodies are yet to be recovered. “To tell you the truth we are mad, we are numb. We can’t use our heads. This is too much to even comprehend,” the children’s uncle, Thokozani Mdlalose said.
He is wearing tinted glasses to conceal his pain but his cracking voice and quivering lip betray his struggle to keep his composure.”When you have to split your grief, you think of this one, you think of that [one]. It’s too much. It’s hard losing one person. It’s worse losing two. Ten is something else,” he says.
The mass funeral of Slindile Mdalose and her five children – Uyanda, Lubanzi, Ziyanda, Asanele, Lulama – took place on a cool morning. She was also the aunt of four more children, who are still missing.
“Knowing that we haven’t found them, that they might be decomposing somewhere out there – words can’t describe what is inside me right now. I can’t even gather my thoughts,” Mr Mdlalose says.
He adds that the nine children were playful and full of laughter, and brought joy to the whole family.
Their aunt, Nonkululeko Mdlalose, says when she last spoke to her sister on the phone just hours before they died, she could tell that her sister was afraid.
It was raining heavily, unlike anything either of them had ever seen before. Still, they did not expect that it would lead to disaster, Nonkululeko Mdlalose says.
“I’ve never felt this kind of pain. I thought I was a strong person but I realise that I’m not, that we will need help, I realise we will need counselling. This is too much for anyone to bear,” she adds.
They are not the only ones grieving. The floods killed 435 people, and dozens of victims are still missing, leaving their families in unbearable limbo.
Less than 200 have been buried so far, and at least 59 bodies remain unclaimed in mortuaries.
Icebolethu Funeral Services, one of the biggest funeral homes in KwaZulu-Natal, has so far buried more than 70 victims.
One of its managing executives, Mthokozisi Bhengu, says corpses are not in a good state because they had been submerged in water, and they need to be buried quickly to avoid their condition worsening.
“Families have cultural practices they would like to follow, like burying everyone in a family at the same time but we’ve had to persuade those whose loved ones are still missing that whilst they’re still searching for the others, let us continue and bury the ones in the morgues and preserve their dignity,” he adds.
In the case of unclaimed bodies, funeral parlours say, there is no consensus yet on what to do with them.
One option being considered by officials is to extract their DNA and store the information, so that family members, if they ever come looking for their loved ones, can be taken to their graves – something that will hopefully give them some closure.
The government and private donors have offered help to cover funeral costs but the claims process is said to be bureaucratic and slow, leading to further delays with burials.
The head of the South African Funeral Parlour Association, Nomfudo Mcoyi, says the delays could have been avoided.
“In future, the government should bring in industry experts from the beginning in a crisis. Let us tell you how best to do this,” she says.
Ms Mcoyi adds that the delays are causing more trauma and stress for families.
“We could have done it [the burials] easily without bodies decaying,” she says.
Back at the funeral on a hill, KwaZulu-Natal premier Sihle Zikalala said the government was working to help all those in need.
On rebuilding homes for families such as the Mdlaloses, he said the government was working on identifying suitable land to house new settlements for the displaced. Thousands of people have been left homeless and are living in shelters across the province.
“The task of rebuilding KwaZulu-Natal cannot be achieved by our caring government alone. It requires that we entrench the new spirit of solidarity and patriotism that we have seen in our province,” he told the crowd.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has acknowledged that more funds are needed than the initial $68m (£55m) set aside to rebuild KwaZulu-Natal and all that’s been lost.It’s a long road ahead for many people here – from those who’ve lost family to those who lost their homes or livelihoods. As the true picture of the devastation caused by the floods emerges, many will need all the help they can get.