Update on #UCTFire damage

29 April 2021 | Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng

Dear colleagues and students

I am writing to report to you on the damage caused at the University of Cape Town (UCT) by the #UCTFire, based on the initial assessments conducted by the Properties & Services Department (P&S). Of course, the most important fact is that no lives were lost. We remain grateful to our brave firefighters and we extend wishes for a rapid recovery to those who were injured in the line of duty. Thank you again to everyone from across UCT who worked so tirelessly in the immediate aftermath of the fire and in this last week. Your efforts have been extraordinary in the face of a deeply challenging time, not only because of the fire but also because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

UCT is at present co-operating with its insurers, whose investigations into the events and consequences of the fire on 18 April are at an early stage and remain ongoing.

We are also conducting a full occupational health and safety audit that is a statutory responsibility. Furthermore, and separate from the investigation process initiated by the insurers, UCT will undertake its own investigation and will do so on the basis of legal advice obtained. This will be concluded in due course and will be considered by Council. South African National Parks, as our direct neighbour, and the City of Cape Town have also launched separate investigations. We will work closely with them in this regard.

The speculation as to  the causes of the fire is understandable. At this point it is not possible to address questions posed in this regard whilst investigations are at an early stage.

The following buildings have had significant structural damage and will remain closed for the foreseeable future:

  • The Jagger Library Reading Room and Special Collections (Upper Campus)
  • HW Pearson Building (Upper Campus)
  • Cadbol House (which housed the Student Housing Office in Lower Campus)
  • La Grotta (which housed the Staff Recruitment Office in Lower Campus)
  • Fuller Residence (Upper Campus)
  • Smuts Residence (Upper Campus)

The following buildings and facilities have sustained minor damage and are open, although they may still need repairs (unless otherwise noted, they are all on Upper Campus):

  • 11 Woodbine Road (Residence in Rondebosch)
  • AC Jordan
  • Botany Glass House
  • Ivan Toms Pergola in Lower Campus
  • Leslie Commerce
  • Leslie Social Science
  • Molecular & Cell Biology
  • RW James
  • Tennis Courts
  • Upper Campus in general
  • Woolsack Residence in Lower Campus

While the damage varies, the electrical, information and communications systems and mechanical systems were often affected, and the lifts stopped working in both Leslie Commerce and Leslie Social Science. Lighting poles were damaged in the tennis courts and along Upper Campus roads.

P&S has developed a four-phase outline for the #UCTFire Recovery Plan. Phase One is almost completed, with the return of most of our students to residence (and the relocation of Fuller and Smuts students to temporary accommodation); the restoration of a safe campus environment; the resumption of the academic project as much as possible; and the ongoing salvaging of our precious archive materials in the HW Pearson Building and the Jagger Library.

You can see photos of the excellent progress that is being made in the Jagger Library salvage work on the UCT Libraries Facebook page. What has made this progress possible is the time and energy of the many volunteers who have provided much-needed assistance since last Friday. Your ongoing help in this project is making a difference that will be felt for many future generations of academics.

I also acknowledge the work of the countless volunteers who helped our students who were evacuated. Colleagues from many different UCT departments joined in preparing parcels for students who had to leave their residences without basic necessities. Others helped to settle students into their temporary accommodation and to return them to residence.

We remain grateful to the various organisations that assisted in this process, including non-governmental organisations that, without an invitation, went far beyond their call of duty; corporates that provided donations and support in various forms; and hotels that opened their facilities at short notice to accommodate UCT students. We have received emails, calls and words of encouragement from students, parents, staff, and friends in the local and international community who were concerned about the safety of all students and staff evacuated during the fire. The university continues to provide support to all those affected: our Student Wellness Service (SWS) is caring for students and our staff are receiving support from ICAS.

As many of you are aware, we planned to introduce study spaces for day students from 19 April 2021. Due to the fire, this has been delayed. I am extremely pleased to advise that the plan for creating study spaces for day students is going forward, from 3 May to 24 December 2021. The intended users are students who are not living in residences and who, due to structural and systemic inequality, have limited internet connectivity and/or are studying in conditions not conducive for learning. The selected venues will be monitored by study space marshals who are trained senior students who report to the Department of Student Affairs (DSA). The study spaces will operate from 08:00 to 20:00, Monday to Friday.

Please remember that the university remains committed to maintaining a low-density campus. We urge students to access campus only if it is necessary. We discourage students who may have health and medical risks from accessing campus. If in doubt, please contact SWS.

Everyone within the UCT community mourns the damage caused by the unprecedented fire. While we are immensely grateful that no students or staff lost their lives as a result, we are united in our shock at the losses sustained by the Jagger Library and other campus buildings.

There are many different, and sometimes personal, ways that members of the UCT community helped one another during and after the fire. We know that many of you have meaningful stories, photos and videos of your own #UCTFire experience. I urge you to send them to newsdesk@uct.ac.za, with your name and contact details. Talking about what happened is an important part of the recovery process after a trauma such as the #UCTFire. I encourage you to share your stories as we rebuild.


Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng

Please note: Donations can be made online through the UCT Alumni Ways to Give web page.

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