South African heatwave deaths likely warning of more to come – everywhere

climate change

Parts of South Africa have been rendered literally dangerous to go out in the sun due to very hot conditions persisting above 40 degrees Celsius and high UV radiation.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

This past week has seen an unprecedented and deadly heat wave across a swathe of South Africa in a pattern of altered climate that is being echoed in neighbouring countries, other regions in Africa and across the globe.

While there is some residual ‘climate change denialism’, especially in ‘know-nothing’ social media posts, academics and professional atmospheric, oceanic and climate experts agree virtually unanimously that the current extreme weather patterns, as a whole, are directly linked to accelerating climate change.

Major and deadly climate changes and associated extreme weather events being experienced in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres are, in turn, driven by anthropogenic (human-caused) atmospheric and oceanic warming due to vast releases of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) emissions over the last 170 years. 


Extreme heatwaves, drought and devastating flooding have impacted millions of people and cost billions in damage in 2022, according to the United Nations. Graphic shows selected extreme weather events of 2022.

Photo credit: Pool I Nation Media Group

In the light of several deaths in the course of just a few days of extreme weather in the Northern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, with a body of very warm, trapped air lingering in a swathe running diagonally from north-west to south-east across S. Africa, the SA Weather Service (SAWS) said the recent heatwave would wane through this week, but that it would likely recur.

Parts of South Africa have been rendered literally dangerous to go out in the sun due to very hot conditions persisting above 40 degrees Celsius and high UV radiation.

At least eight farm workers have died as a direct result of heat stroke and some elders have also perished, with nation-wide power outages preventing any sort of cooling by air conditioning.

Many have taken to social media, saying they were having difficulties in sleeping and with breathing, while others complained about being unable to concentrate at work despite the air-conditioning at offices, even when there is power to run such systems.

SAWS senior weather forecaster Puseletso Mofokeng urged people to remain out of direct sunlight.

“The heatwave is expected to die down this week. In the meantime, we are urging residents to remain calm and drink lots of water from time to time. This is not limited to avoiding sun rays, direct sunlight and heated places.

“If working physically hard, remain hydrated. Take turns (time-outs) to catch enough air. This will help avoid headaches, fatigue and stress,” said Mofokeng.

Although some cooler weather was due to follow, more heat waves – on top of extended droughts affecting much the same regional zones – were expected before summer’s end in the Southern Hemisphere, said weather analysts.

On Friday the City of eThekwini said load shedding and extreme heat were placing a burden on electricity infrastructure.

In the midst of the heatwave, farmworkers attempting harvests of summer crops in the Northern Cape in particular, where days on end of over 40 degrees Celsius were causing not only deaths but numerous collapses and other medical impacts in humans, animals usually well-adapted to heat are also dying, said the regional farmer’s representative body.

With power outages, cities like eThekwini metro (Durban) were overwhelmed by emergency call-outs, both medical and technical, as the combination of power outages and extreme demand for power for air conditioning units caused knock-on technical failures, exacerbating the climate-crisis event.

Other areas in Africa and on other continents are experiencing much the same pattern of severe heat and drought in summer, interspersed with intense flash-flood episodes of epic downpours released over short periods, whole years’ worth of rainfall being dropped within hours.

In winter seasons, extremes of both warm and super-cold weather are occurring routinely, resulting in seasons past of no snow at all in usually high-snowfall areas, oscillating with years, such as this one in most such places, where there have been historically heavy snowfalls in historically short periods.

The South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) predicted current patterns of changed weather and their seasonal recurrence as long as 19 years ago.

In 2004, a conference of climate experts, journalists covering climate change and global warming, as well as sustainable development, and governmental authorities, gathered in Johannesburg to hear that on patterns then already discernible, the current extremes in climate and super-damaging climate events was not long off, according to CSIR scientists.

Although, then, it was thought the currently emergent changing and ever-more-extreme weather events being recorded globally would become “obvious” by sometime after 2030, subsequent acceleration of global warming and consequent climate change has meant the CSIR predictions were incorrect only in how soon they would be evident, as now they are.

South African authorities said of the current heave wave that technicians were working hard to restore power and ease the current stifling conditions for the worst-affected regions.

The latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, in its Africa section said, with high confidence, that: “Exposure and vulnerability to climate change in Africa are multi-dimensional with socioeconomic, political and environmental factors intersecting.”

The report goes on to say that although Africa is “one of the lowest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change, yet key development sectors have already experienced widespread losses and damages attributable to human-induced climate change, including biodiversity loss, water shortages, reduced food production, loss of lives and reduced economic growth”.

Extreme weather events resulting, including but not restricted to the south-western parts of Africa, the eastern regions of the continent, especially the Horn of Africa and states neighbouring that, and across the southward creeping desertification line in the Sahel, are predicted to continue in both frequency and intensity as the average global temperature rises in line with current GHG release rates, off the back of historically high levels of such gases already in the atmosphere.

Already by 2020, South Africa’s north-western regions, Botswana and Namibia, were all averaging over two degrees’ Celsius warmer climate, rendering as moot for this region the global 1.5 degrees’ Celsius average increase target of the IPCC and others studying climate change, its impacts and mitigation prospects.

Similarly located regions on other continents could expect much the same, say climate scientists.

On top of that, “Africa’s rapidly growing cities will be (are) hotspots of risks from climate change and climate-induced in-migration, which could amplify (and are amplifying) pre-existing stresses related to poverty, informality, social and economic exclusion, and governance,” said the IPCC on Africa’s outlook, also with high confidence.

The short story is that climate change has moved ahead so rapidly, with most GHGs taking decades to be neutralised in their warming effects, that many further and even more extreme heat waves, plus counter-point extreme and ‘strange’ weather almost everywhere in Africa, are to be expected, given the impacts on global climate already – and long before climate experts had previously been expecting.