Johannesburg - Whe the raging torrent of the Jukskei River swept through Alexandra township on Wednesday evening, Shadrack Chauke grabbed his three-year-old daughter and climbed up a tree.
But when the branch he was sitting on broke, he lost his grip on little Everlate and she was swept away by the current.
On Thursday, a distraught Shadrack cried as he and his wife Cynthia were comforted by members of Gift of the Givers - who were in the Setswetla section assisting those displaced by the floods.
At least six people were killed, dozens of vehicles swept away and houses and shacks destroyed when the flash floods lashed parts of Joburg and Ekurhuleni.
Flights were delayed at OR Tambo International Airport, and so were trains during the floods, which were described by the police as “nothing short of a disaster”.
In Alexandra on Thursday, search- and-rescue teams from both the police and Johannesburg Emergency Management Services (JEMS) waded through various parts of the river in search of the child’s body, while tracker dogs scouted the area.
While Everlate’s parents were too overcome with grief to talk, the child’s aunt, Abigail, explained what had happened.
“The branch broke and they fell into the water. Everlate was washed away and the father was also washed away for a few metres but managed to get up,” she said, holding back tears.
“Their shack was washed away. They lost all their belongings, even their money that was at the house. It would be better if we could find Ever’s body and be able to bury her, then we will always know where her grave is.”
Shadrack and Cynthia received trauma counselling at the Alexandra Clinic in the afternoon. By late Thursday, the child’s body had not yet been recovered.
“The search was temporarily called off because of the rain,” said JEMS spokesperson Nana Radebe. "We’ll resume the search at first light.”
While the Chauke family grieved, scenes of devastation played out all along the river’s banks as families trudged through the mud and debris in search of any belongings that remained.
Many residents said they had had to scramble to get out of their shacks as the water level rose rapidly. Some pulled the roofs off people’s homes to help them out. Appliances and cars were swept away.
“It was raining and after 20 to 30 minutes, I saw the river getting full. I then saw water in my shack and I had to go out and leave everything. It was coming very fast,” said Godfrey Mogakane, indicating that the water level was chest-high in his shack.
“We had to save other people and children because it was so bad.”
Homeless shack dwellers in Alexandra living on the edge of the Jukskei River spent Thursday trying to gather their meagre belongings and retrieve what was left of their wrecked homes. Picture: Antoine de Ras
Mogakane said he’d been living in the area for eight years, and though he was wary of the river, he had never experienced a flood like this before. “When it’s raining we don’t sleep, we have to see how far the river is flowing.”
When taxi driver Samuel Mokgehle’s brother phoned him on Wednesday evening to tell him about the storm, he rushed home.
“When I came back I saw it was (already) demolished.”
One man lost his entire music studio, worth around R10 000, to the floods. Behind him, two damaged speakers lay partly embedded in the mud.
“I saw my fridge floating along on the water, but what was I going to do? My ID is gone, my bank card is gone. I don’t have anything. Now I need to start afresh and I don’t know where and how, I’ll just try to hustle,” he said.
While a police helicopter circled overhead, people picked their way through the mangled mess of crockery, corrugated iron, clothing and bricks.
Ignatia Zanele Shange put muddied clothes on a pile, while her five-year-old son played next to her.
“It’s a very traumatising situation, we are waiting for help,” she said.
Down river, residents dragged waterlogged cars out of the water and hosed the mud off, while one woman pointed to where her lounge had once been.
Gauteng Acting Premier Paul Mashatile visited the area on Thursday and told residents the government would find temporary shelter for the displaced families.
Meanwhile, people have been warned to brace for more flash floods until February.
Mandy Barrett, of insurance brokerage and risk advisers Aon South Africa, said general consensus from meteorologists in the know was that South Africa should brace for a La Niña phenomenon. - Additional reporting by Anna Cox