THE BLOG

The 11/9 Highway Flash Floods That Changed Me

Will it always require a tragedy to peel away the prejudices for us to see each other as human beings? Can we look past our differences without calamity?

21/04/2017 03:59 SAST | Updated 21/04/2017 03:59 SAST
Mongezi Mtati

At about 16:38 on the 9th of November 2016, cars slowed down on a rainy N3 highway.

All traffic directed itself towards the fast lane of a four-lane freeway to escape the puddle that had formed on the left-hand side. It resembled a shallow dam on what was a somewhat beautiful rainy Wednesday with the sun shyly setting somewhere up ahead in the stormy clouds. We had just exited Alexandra township to get onto to the highway and the township was slowly disappearing to our right as we headed towards the East Rand.

I spent the first part of the journey searching for news stories, something to share, sending messages on Whatsapp and looking for breaking news on Twitter – as I usually do when I sit in traffic while someone else drives. The road opened up a few minutes later with all four lanes still moving slowly because of the rain and puddles. Our driver moved to the left and drove forward in the slow lane for a few minutes. Then all traffic stopped completely.

There was the surreal sight of a car floating off the road towards what looked like an island of grass and puddle. "But surely there wasn't that much water on the road because the traffic should move," I thought. A man ran across the road from the fast to the slow lane and up the grassy hill next to the road. It was as though the freeway had become an ordinary neighbourhood street. Another few people ran from their vehicles. There were now five cars and an SUV floating towards an overflowing storm water pipe that was filling the road with even more water.

"It's rising up halfway up the door from outside," said one of our fellow passengers, when it became clear at about 10 minutes into this unexpected turn of events that we were not moving anytime soon. When the door was opened and I dipped my feet in water that surprisingly reached the pockets of my jeans, the hope that we would move sometime soon was completely dashed.

In the next few minutes, while we stood on the slightly raised hill along the highway, more cars started floating below us. There could have been about ten vehicles from what I could see. Some of us walked towards those vehicles with the intention of offering some assistance, though what kind of help a squad of wet strangers could offer had not really been discussed.

That moment connected everyone on that road, every South African (from all walks of life) was after one thing and one thing only, to save all the lives that we could and get out of there safely.

That moment connected everyone on that road, every South African (from all walks of life) was after one thing and one thing only, to save all the lives that we could and get out of there safely. The storm water drainage seemed to pull the vehicles towards an outlet, a tunnel that was designed to push water under the road. It seemed that more water ended up on the road surface.

Mongezi Mtati

Just over two hours into the situation, with traffic still standing, the divers arrived and I was told that four cars were stuck under the freeway inside the flooded storm water drain. The flood was draining from the road at this point and more vehicles emerged on the side of the road. There could have been more than six cars that had slipped from the road and were now under other cars.

Some of the road users had rescued the now lifeless body of a lady that they had rested on the trailer of a flatbed truck. News of her passing spread quickly among concerned motorists. A shivering man who was rescued by other road users after nearly drowning in his car was brought next to where we were standing. People around me were saying that this sort of thing only happens in the movies. It all seemed unreal - like living in a nightmare.

It was about 19:30 when one lane was eventually opened by emergency services. Most vehicles could not start due to water damage, but we were lucky. The journey home was silent until someone broke quiet with a realization: "we could have drowned". It was the sort of experience that made us all appreciate life a whole lot more.

The incidents on that road painted a different picture, an image of a disparate group of people, suddenly connected and trying to make its way out of a terrifying situation.

A lot has divided South Africa, race, class and other points of difference. These divisions have existed for longer than anyone has monitored, but the past year or two have made them even more evident. It doesn't help that politicians take advantage and point out all of our painful disagreements. The incidents on that road painted a different picture, an image of a disparate group of people, suddenly connected and trying to make its way out of a terrifying situation. Seeing news snippets of that road and driving on the N3 from one end to another is not the same for me anymore and it may never be again. Had it not been for the five cars in front of us, I wouldn't be able to share this story today.

Perhaps the world changed on 11/9 2016 with Donald Trump being elected president and parts of South Africa experiencing floods, in a time when the Minister of Water and Sanitation, Mrs Nomvula Mokonyane and Pastor Paseka "Mboro" Motsoeneng were publicly praying for rains. Perhaps the world also remained the same. Being stuck on a highway with cars floating around me, with other strangers whose destinies had instantly been connected with mine, had changed my world.

I am grateful, I am humbled, but I am also a little disappointed. Will it always require a tragedy to peel away the prejudices and allow us to see each other as human beings? Is there no way that we can look past our differences without calamity?