By Annalise Kempen
For many South Africans the word “disaster” became a reality in March 2020 when the President of the country, Mr Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation in the first of many “family meetings” to follow when he announced the country’s first lockdown. Seldom before had we paid attention to the Disaster Management Act and regulations as “disasters” were, in our minds, typically limited to areas that had been hit by a wildfire, drought or floods. When Mr Ramaphosa informed us that the coronavirus had been declared a national disaster, we all realised that this word was no longer only applicable during natural disasters - it became part of our daily lives. In fact, at the time of going to print at the beginning of December 2021, South Africa had already passed its 600th day in lockdown under the national state of disaster. Yet, disasters have been with us for much longer than the coronavirus and their impact in certain communities have been worse than this virus.
What is a disaster?
The Disaster Management Act 57 of 2002 is the legislative authority in the country when we have to deal with disasters. It provides for an integrated and coordinated disaster management policy that focuses on preventing or reducing the risk of disasters, mitigating the severity of disasters, emergency preparedness, rapid and effective response to disasters and post-disaster recovery. It also provides for the establishment of national, provincial and municipal disaster management centres; disaster management volunteers; and matters incidental thereto.
According to Act 57 of 2002, a “disaster” means a progressive or sudden, widespread or localised, natural or human-caused occurrence which -
(a) causes or threatens to cause -
(i) death, injury or disease;
(ii) damage to property, infrastructure or the environment; or
(iii) disruption of the life of a community; and
(b) is of a magnitude that exceeds the ability of those affected by the disaster to cope with its effects using only their own resources.
A disaster can be declared as local, provincial or national, depending on its magnitude and severity or potential magnitude and severity. In terms of section 23 of Act 57 of 2002, a local disaster is classified as such if it only affects a single metropolitan, district or local municipality; and the municipality concerned, or, if it is a district or local municipality, either alone or with the assistance of local municipalities in the area of the district municipality is able to deal with it effectively. In June 2017, following the devastating Knysna fires that resulted in the loss of lives and severe property damage, a local state of disaster relating to the fires was declared in terms of section 55 of the Disaster Management Act. The same happened in the Bitou municipality relating to the fires. In both these cases the Eden district municipality provided assistance (Western Cape Government, 2021) although fire services from across the country also assisted with extinguishing the fires.