April 20, 2021

Wildfire Endangers Anti-Apartheid Archives, African Film Collection at University of Cape Town Library

The Jagger Library at the University of Cape Town. Photo: Ian Barbour/Flickr.

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA—A tremendous wildfire that began burning on South Africa’s Table Mountain yesterday morning caused severe damage to a library housing a major anti-apartheid archive and one of the world’s largest collections of African films. The reading room of the Jagger Library at the University of Cape Town (UCT), home to the university’s special collections, was described as “gutted” by Ujala Satgoor, the library’s executive director in a Twitter post.

Believed to have been unintentionally started on Sunday morning by a homeless person, the blaze intensified quickly, fueled by high winds and what SANParks, which oversees Tabletop, characterized as “very old pine trees.” On Monday, the fire swept onto the campus housing the library, forcing the evacuation of four thousand students. Video showed the windows of the circa 1830s library aglow with orange flames, which additionally consumed South Africa’s oldest windmill.

“I write this message with a deep sense of sorrow and devastation at the loss,” wrote Satgoor on Twitter. “Some of us watched from on site with horror and helplessness this elegant and historical library burn.” The reading room had only recently undergone renovations.

Though the extent of the damage cannot be known until authorities are able to access the site of the disaster, the partial destruction of the African Studies Collection was confirmed by UCT vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng, speaking to CapeTalk radio. Phakeng additionally noted that some of the losses were not insured.

Cape Town mayor Dan Plato suggested that staff’s rapid deployment of fire-suppression mechanisms may have preserved a significant portion of the archives. “It is tragic that literary treasures have been lost at the UCT library,” he told The Guardian, “but I have been informed that some of the most valuable works were saved by the quick activation of roller doors. Our attention and support remains with firefighters and all role-players working to protect further loss of property.”

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