Cardinal Napier: "Walk of Witness" reaches out to South Africa's flood victims
By Linda Bordoni
Floods in South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal Province have displaced over 40,000 people, damaged houses crops and lands. Over 400 people died in the April 19 floods and many are still missing.
A National State of Disaster has been declared and rescue teams have been deployed to the affected areas to provide humanitarian assistance.
An interfaith delegation on Tuesday visited some of those areas and called for a nationwide prayer moment involving parliament.
Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier, Archbishop Emeritus of Durban, told Linda Bordoni about the initiative and reflected on some of the causes and consequences of the disaster:
“The Walk of Witness” and a joint moment of prayer that saw representatives of the National Religious Forum visit some of the flood-affected areas of KwaZulu Natal stemmed from an initiative of the Kwa-Zulu Natal Christian Council and the South African Council of Churches working together.
Thus, Cardinal Napier explained, it brought a number of faith leaders from the different communities together with people involved in relief efforts, physically showing their solidarity and closeness to those who have lost so much. Following the “Walk of Witness” and Nationwide Prayer, a meeting was held to evaluate and assess damage and relief work and make a plan for the coming weeks and months.
The Cardinal explained that the delegation visited mainly the outlying areas of the city of Durban, “Just to name a few areas, Phoenix and Verulam that are predominantly occupied by people of Indian origin; Inanda, Ntuzuma, uMlazi and Hopewell.” These, he said, are big townships on the outskirts of Durban, home mostly to black people, but not exclusively.
One important characteristic that emerged, he said, was that “many of the houses that were destroyed or damaged were actually located on unsuitable land, on steep slopes near - or even on - the river bed or on the riverbanks.”
These are places, the Cardinal explained, where infrastructure is not very good. Drainage systems don't actually operate or are not present at all.
“And so these areas are ready-made for any kind of disaster. And with the scale of rain that we had, with over a hundred millimetres in 24 hours, - that's the scale of the rain that was coming down - damage had to be done to those places that were in such unsuitable locations,” he said.
Interfaith collaboration and solidarity defeating racism
Another thing that is worth noting, the Cardinal confirmed, is that those very areas were the ones that suffered unrest and racial clashes in July 2021, but today they are where the people have come together in solidarity.
“And I think,” Cardinal Napier added, “it's largely due to a huge effort on the part of Churches to bring those communities together.”
Pointing to a series of initiatives promoted by the Churches and by community leaders, he said people are helping distribute food and other aid to each other, resulting in “good coming out of what started off as a bad experience for both communities: the black and the Indian communities.”
There was a talk shop arranged for last Friday, the Cardinal recalled, that had to be called off because of the flood. It was on the theme of racial tension in these areas and what's responsible for it: “I think it's been bypassed by events where both communities have been seen to be working much more closely together than perhaps in some other areas.”
The Nationwide Prayer Moment also involved Parliament and called for all South Africans to observe a moment of prayer according to their tradition. In the evening, President Cyril Ramaphosa, who declared a national state of emergency following the floods, pledged a billion rands for relief and reconstruction.
Lack of trust in political leaders
“I think people were glad to hear the Government is putting down a marker as to what it’s going to contribute,” Cardinal Napier said, “But there's a great deal of skepticism given what happened with the COVID relief that was made available and the way that was looted by people in responsible positions, including our National Minister of Health who had to resign as a result of what had taken place under his watch.”
The Cardinal also noted that people are asking themselves where this money is coming from as so often they have been told there are no funds for other development projects.
Regarding collaboration with the religious communities, he said that in some areas there is a good deal of cooperation with government, with NGOs and other community leaders in bringing about relief and support.
“Feeding schemes are bubbling up all over the place, a lot of the good action is taking place in the city and within the townships,” he said, but “when you get to the peripheries, that's where no one is visible.”
Ecumenical efforts in the peripheries
“Especially," he said, "the councillors, the ward councillors, who in circumstances like this would be expected to be there, to find out from the people, give them support.”
It is the Church that is most present on the margins, in the peripheries, with the local pastors leading the efforts, the Archbishop Emeritus of Durban said, upholding the fact that those efforts are largely ecumenical.
He explained that the representatives of the various Churches have been meeting every Monday since COVID struck. These meetings, he said, organized by the KwaZulu Natal Christian Council and the KwaZulu-Natal Church Leaders Group, have proved pivotal for promoting and fuelling local ecumenical action networks.
They have also provided the space to discuss and reflect on issues that are often ignored during emergencies, Cardinal Napier concluded, important issues such as protection from abuse when people are struggling to cope with a crisis, and the need to learn from the mistakes of the past in rebuilding and planning for a more stable and secure future.