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Scholars mourn thousands of antiquities lost in Cape Town fire

April 20th 2021 at 14:10


Cape Town – It was no ordinary library. The University of Cape Town’s Jagger Reading Room, destroyed by a runaway fire this week, was a beacon of African history and intellect.

The African studies section of the 1930s library was engulfed by flames on Sunday when a fire sparked on the foothills of the city’s iconic Table Mountain spread to the nearby campus.

Parquet-floored and lined with columns, the vast room housed a unique collection of African books and archives under its domed ceiling.

The more than 85,000 books and 3,000 films were renowned across the continent and beyond.

ALSO READ: Five things you need to know about the Cape Town fires

Academics and alumni voiced their distress on Tuesday as university staff started assessing the extent of the damage.

“The library is the heart of a university,” said Cameroonian professor Divine Fuh, head of the university’s Institute of Humanities in Africa.

“When you see that place in flames, it’s like you just die.”

With African knowledge having been “devalued for years, for centuries” the library also offered a “symbolic” space beyond its practical use, said Fuh.

Students voiced their dismay in messages on social media.

Some shared images of bright orange flames shooting through the library’s tall paned windows, plumes of smoke billowing from the roof.

“I’m so heartbroken and sore over the UCT fire. Seeing pictures of the library on fire is sending me through the roof. My mind was shaped in that institution,” tweeted Paballo Chauke, a South African who also studied at Oxford university.

Historian and anthropologist Marissa Mika, who is writing a book on Uganda, tweeted that she studied at UCT in 2002 and the library “shaped the course of my life for the past 20 years. Heartbroken for all that’s been lost”.

‘Huge loss’

Professor June Bam-Hutchison remembered using the Jagger Reading Room — named after a major benefactor — during the 1980s to access material banned by South Africa’s white-minority government.

“That library really gave me a sense of affirmation, of belonging because I could find things in there that connected me to this land,” said Bam-Hutchison, who heads the Khoi and San unit at the university’s Centre for African Studies.

ALSO READ: Cape Town fire ‘largely contained’

The banned literature — only accessible with a special permit — offered her a glimpse into an unknown world of African intellectuals narrating the history of the continent before its colonisation.

Bam-Hutchison had since encouraged her own students to browse the library’s collection to deepen their knowledge and find inspiration.

Its rare archives attracted scholars from around the world, she added.

While many have been digitised, “there is something about touching”, she said.

Three other university buildings were damaged by the blaze, including two residence halls.

The fire was largely contained by Tuesday, city officials said, leaving at least 600 hectares (1,500 acres) of land charred.

Several private and historic buildings have been destroyed, including the Rhodes Memorial Restaurant and the 18th century Mostert’s Hill windmill.

While parts of the library were still smouldering, staff had started the daunting task of working through the debris to evaluate the damage.

“This is a huge loss,” the university’s vice-chancellor professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said in a statement.

“But we will recover, and recover stronger.”

Linda Givetash

Minister’s home ‘completely destroyed’ by Cape Town fire

April 19th 2021 at 15:07


A Cabinet minister’s home in Newlands, Cape Town, was “completely destroyed” on Sunday by the fires that have razed Table Mountain and parts of the University of Cape Town (UCT).

This was revealed by Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure, Patricia de Lille, on Monday. The property belongs to De Lille’s department.

“Thankfully, no one was hurt and no one was in the property at the time,” De Lille said in a statement.

She also revealed that the fire came close to Deputy President David Mabuza’s Groote Schuur Estate residence on Sunday but it was quelled in time.

“There was no damage to this property,” she said.

ALSO READ: Man arrested on suspicion of starting Cape Town fires

Family members of another Cabinet minister and two deputy ministers were also evacuated on Monday from Walmer Estate, “as there was an immediate threat on Monday morning as the fire moved over Philip Kgosana Drive”.

“Saps [South African Police Service] has advised these families not to return to the houses due to heavy smoke and strong winds in the area as it is not yet completely safe,” De Lille said.

“DPWI [Department of Public Works and Infrastructure] continues to monitor the situation closely and are working with the local Saps to ensure that we do all we can to support the efforts of the firefighters and Saps to protect lives and property.

“We also extend our thanks to the various organisations and Capetonians who have once again been quick to open their hearts to support the firefighters in this massive task as well as offer all kinds of help to students and families who have had to evacuate their homes for their safety.”

ALSO READ: Firefighters continue to battle Cape Town fires

Earlier on Monday, police revealed that a man had been arrested on suspicion of starting one of the veld fires.

Cape Town mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith said a suspect in his 30s was taken into custody on Sunday night at Devil’s Peak.

“He was spotted by a resident who tracked him down with the help of his sons and the family’s dogs,” Smith said in a statement.