Earlier this month, Edina Maliwa, 25 was asleep in her home in the Mariannhill community of the KwaZulu-Natal province after a tiring shift as a maid when a deafening sound awoke her.
“I didn’t know what it was at first until I got off my bed,” Maliwa said in a telephone interview from a neighbouring town where a friend had taken her in. “I was submerged in water to my ankles, that’s when I knew that I was in trouble.”
“When I got out, I found that a big tree had fallen on my neighbour’s house. All the five people that were there died that night.”
The floods continued for several days and left at least 443 people dead and 63 others missing.
The Malawian foreign affairs ministry told Al Jazeera that at least seven of its citizens were among that death toll, even as two are missing and more than 200 remain displaced.
Maliwa, a Malawian, is among them. Back in 2019, she left her daughter, now aged five, with her mother and migrated to South Africa due to a lack of opportunities for work in her home country.
For years, rising unemployment rates and poor living conditions in neighbouring countries like Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe have made South Africa, the second-largest economy on the continent, an attractive country, especially for thousands of youth. Many of them end up in the informal sector, working as security guards, shop assistants and domestic assistants.
But those who have survived the disaster say they ended up losing all their possessions and that they have received no support or assurance from their home government.
According to them, they have not received assistance from the provincial or national governments in South Africa, either. But that also applies to the locals who have shown frustration with the level of support from the authorities.
For people like John Achadi, 26, a community hall is the only place where he could find shelter. He is one of 32 Malawians camping there and surviving on handouts from well-wishers. There are other immigrants at the camp – from Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe – and they are worried about their safety, too, in a country with recurring xenophobic violence.
Achadi said he will board the first bus back home as soon as he can. Four years ago, he travelled to South Africa with hopes of finding a job, as his parents were too poor to support his education and so finding work was tough in Malawi.
But following the floods, not only did he lose all his property – most of which was already packed to be sent home – but his workplace, a bakery, was also washed away. His employer sent him a text message that operations will not resume until July.
“That’s too long and how are we going to survive here?” he asked. “It’s so hard to get money to buy food because even the food prices have gone up. Life is harder for me than it was before,” he said.
John Kabaghe, a spokesman for the Malawian foreign affairs ministry said the authorities have been monitoring the situation and are ready to repatriate those willing to come back home, including providing them with travel documents which most had lost.
“They might feel that way (neglected) but it is like we’re trying to support them from a point of view of not having a mission on the ground at the place,” he said, adding that Lilongwe is already grappling with recent disasters including Cyclone Ana.
“We had people who went there and could not access most of the areas,” he added. In situations like these, there are unrealistic expectations [from the people] on what the government can do.”
Maliwa and Achadi said they were unable to reach their embassy because they have no contacts for officials there.
Lilongwe-based political scientist Victor Chipofya Jr blamed the government for not catering to the needs of Malawians in the diaspora in their time of need.
“Most Malawians that are living in South Africa are people that are going there and the jobs that they are doing are not really high-paying jobs,” he said. “So to sort out the problem, in the long run, maybe it is high time that the Malawi government creates an environment within Malawi that should make these people not to leave this country to go and work in South Africa.”
The morning after the downpour, Maliwa witnessed dozens of bodies being shovelled off from the rubble, a sight that has left her traumatised. But with no better prospects back home, she is willing to stay, hoping for a fresh start.