25 January 1981 is recognised as one of the biggest natural disasters in South African History.

Laingsburg has become a Historical Landmark through the devastating flood of 25 Jan 1981, when 425mm of rain through two days cubed a blockage at the railway bridge which flooded ¾ of the town. Warning were not heeded or believed, the result of which that many people were trapped and forced to the roofs from where many were washed off into the raging river ending up in the Floriskraaldam 20km downstream. !2 Survivors lived and told their ordeal. At the height of the flood-18h00 the water pressure against the bridge was estimated at 8000 kw meter at about the same time the gravel filled embankment having been eroded moving water gave way and the town was emptied within an hour and rescue operations took over.

Visit Flood Museum for full documentation.

The Laingsburg flood of 25 January 1981 is known as the most serious disaster in the history of South Africa.  On Friday, Saturday  and Sunday the 25th rain fell continuously in and around Laingsburg, a small town in the Karoo between Cape Town and Beaufort West.  At first the rain was gentle as a result of a low pressure system.  But from Saturday afternoon to Sunday a high pressure system brought heavy thunder showers to the catchment area.  Up to 425 mm rainfall was recorded that week-end, whereas the normal rainfall per annum is only 175 mm.

By 08:00 on the Sunday morning the Buffels River, on whose banks the town is built, was in flood and overflowing into the town.  Simultaneously there was a confluence of two rivers, the Baviaans and the Wilgerhout, flowing from the area to the north known as the Moordenaars Karoo, which caused a high volume of water to accumulate at one time. This water entered the main stream just in front of the railway bridge towards the south of the town causing a natural blockage.  Pressure against the railway bridge is estimated to have been 8000 tons per second. The level of the Buffels River rose dramatically at about 12:00 and by 14:00 the town (CBD) was under water.

Residents of Laingsburg, who were used to seeing the Buffels River in flood from time to time, thought that it would soon subside again, not realizing that this was a devastating flood that would hit the town with masses of water coming from an extensive catchment area.  Moreover, the railway bridge and the road bridge over the N1 caused a huge obstruction as trees, plants, rocks, animals and many other objects blocked the flow of the river.  Within seconds, the town was turned into a dam.  People climbed onto the roofs of their houses or into trees and fled to higher ground wherever possible, but everything happened so quickly and so unexpectedly that many lives were lost.  When the gravel embankments leading to the bridges gave way, the water ran at a tremendous speed carrying everything away.  In the blink of an eye, houses, people, almost the whole town disappeared.

The loss of life in Laingsburg was a hundred and four men, women and children.  A hundred and eighty five houses, a home for the aged, school hostels, four rondawels and twenty-three business premises were destroyed.  Survivors of the flood tell stories of how they were washed down river, some clinging to anything that would float, how they clambered to safety along the banks or found themselves floating in the Floriskraal Dam among heaps of debris, 21 km from town.  The number of bodies that were recovered was 32 and 72 were never found.

The flood water level is recorded by signs at various places in the town today, including the inside wall of the Dutch Reformed Church.  It is remarkable to note how the survivors of this disaster recovered after their terrible shock and how they worked together to restore the town. In this they were helped not only by an indomitable spirit but by their willingness to share and to assist one another.  Many did voluntary work : There were first aid workers, those who cooked meals in a general camp kitchen every day, the town planners, those who offered counsel and many others.  Business owners were generous:  To mention a few, Wimpy handed out food to the survivors and Solomon’s General Dealer opened its doors to all to take what was needed.  The owners of the Laingsburg Hotel provided refreshments to the voluntary workers.

Help streamed in from sympathetic people all over the country and a fund was started to assist the victims.  Official help could only reach Laingsburg on the Monday after the flood since the infrastructure had been washed away.  Government supported the flood victims with temporary housing and later built  new houses, a sport complex and a new school hostel and restored the business centre for a total amount of R10 million.  “Die Burger” and other newspapers started disaster funds which brought in R3 million, the Lions helped to build a home for the aged and the Red Cross gave generous help.

How long did it take for the flood to happen?

According to local residents, there was no indication of a flood that week-end although it rained heavily.  On Sunday the 25th the town was suddenly swept away within six to seven hours, after which the weather cleared.

What services were provided for the recovery of Laingsburg?

Initially the Army, Red Cross, Lions, Salvation Army, DR Church and other relief organizations stepped in to help together with friends and family from neighbouring towns.

The national government’s recovery plan for Laingsburg entailed the replanning of a water supply pipeline, a new sewage system, telephones, electric cables, streets and roads etc. which took two years to complete. A flood line for the next 1000 years was proclaimed below which no houses were allowed to be built.

What effect did the flood have on the residents?

Total shock!

The flood has had a lasting effect on the population of Laingsburg.  Many lost their lives and many have lost family and friends.  It has been difficult to overcome the tragedy but Laingsburgers helped themselves by helping one another.

Materially, some people may be better off than before the flood because new development has brought better infrastructure etc. to the town.  The memory of what happened will probably never be erased, as is evident from the reaction of residents whenever the Buffels River comes down in flood.

How long did it take to reconstruct the town?

Reconstruction and planning began immediately and took about eight years.

What was done to commemorate the disaster?

There is a cemetery with a wall plaque bearing the names of some of the victims.

An excellent Flood Museum has been established thanks to the dedication and enthusiasm of the residents of the town, in particular Me Francis van Wyk.  Full documentation of the event is available as well as a website – www. infolaingsburg

There is a flood route that takes you through the town and out along the course of the Buffels River as well as an art route created by the students of the Art Dept. of the University of Stellenbosch.

An eyewitness report:

My most vivid memory is the way the houses toppled over.  You hear a cracking sound, you see a movement and sometimes the house turns on its foundation so that the front door faces the opposite direction.  The moment the house falls, a column of dust escapes into the air reminding one of an explosion.  Next moment there is another cracking sound, another about-turn, another dust explosion, and another house is gone.

List of Flood Victims

Tobias Alberts  |  Piet Rooi  |  Marthinus Barnard  |  Alwina Smith  |  Susanna Destroo  |  Jan Swart  |  Beatrix du Toit  |  Susan Taylor  |  Magdalene Drotskie  |  Carlo van den Berg  |  Susanna du Toit  |  Johannes Victor  |  Pieter du Toit  |  Boois Gous  |  Jeanette Groenewald  |  Willem Grootboom  |  Grace Johannes  |  Hendrik Janse Van Rensburg  |  Johanna Janse van Rensburg  |  Jeanette Koen  |  Martha Koen  |  Jan Kuhn  |  Catharina Lane  |  William Lane  |  Helene Le Roux  |  Johanette Lingenfelder  |  Maria Muller  |  Dirk Nel  |  Margaret Nel  |  Jacobus Olivier  |  Catharina Pietersen

Jacobs Adams  |  Sina Diko  |  Johanna Alberts  |  Pieter du Plessis  |  Moses Alexander  |  Magdalena Erasmus  |  Johannes Ambros  |  Susanna  Erasmus  |  Phillipus Arends  |  Lena Gertse  |  Anita Balie  |  Alfred Goodman  |  Helena Barnard  |  Isak Gouws  |  Jacomina Beukes  |  Johanna Haasbroek  |  Catharina Botes  |  George Horne  |  Hester Botes  |  Anna Human  |  Dirk Claaste  |  Daniel Malan Jacobs  |  Johannes Conradie  |  Jan Kammies  |  Francois Wilhelmus Conradie  |  Klaas Klein  |  Babatjie Diko  |  Jane Diko  |  Anna Knight  |  Edeka Diko  |  John Diko  |  Pieter Koen  |  Ertjie Diko  |  Lena Diko  |  Pieter Koen (jnr)  |  Hilda Diko  |  Nomvula Diko  |  Barbara Koen  |  Jan Laban  |  Letta Lingenfelder  |  Johan Lingenfelder  |  Martha Lottering  |  Anna Maans  |  Florida Mathews  |  Pietro Meintjies  |  Maria Nel  |  Hester Nortier (found in 1985)  |  Johannes Notrtier  |  Magrietha Pool  |  Johny Pretorius  |  Johannes Smith  |  April Solomons  |  Jacob Stadler  |  Margaret Berg  |  Susanna Swanepoel  |  Taylor  |  Elizabeth Theron  |  Elise Theron  |  Hester Theron  |  Johannes Theron  |  Apols Tieties  |  Gerhard van den Berg  |  Hendrina van den Berg  |  Jacob van den Berg  |  Jacomina van der Vyver  |  Johannes van Deventer  |  Johanna van Wyk  |  Karel Visagie  |  Stephen Whittaker  |  Willem Willemse  |  Alexander Williams  |  Bernard Williams