Update on restoring UCT property

07 May 2021 | Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng

Dear students and colleagues

I am writing to give you an update on the process of restoring the property of the University of Cape Town (UCT). After any event as traumatic as the #UCTFire, it is common for people to speculate and even unwittingly spread false reports about the extent of the damage, the cause of the crisis and the long-term outlook for recovery. This is especially common after a fire, because the affected buildings often cannot be entered immediately. Investigators and building professionals need time to assess the extent of the damage, make the areas safe and assist in the process for repairing or replacing damaged facilities.

UCT is committed to transparent communication about the #UCTFire, its causes and effects. The information provided below is our best analysis of the situation so far. Further updates will be provided as we gain more information.

International experts are helping to reclaim damaged archive materials from Jagger Library

As of 30 April 2021, about 50% of the materials in the Jagger Library archives had been salvaged, with the help of as many as 150 volunteers on a daily basis. The rescue process began on 19 April 2021, the day after the fire, when UCT Libraries Executive Director Ujala Satgoor appointed team leaders for the salvage and recovery project. Dr Dale Peters, who was the director of eResearch before she retired last year, has returned to UCT in an advisory capacity, to assist Ms Satgoor in leading the recovery project. Dr Peters served UCT Libraries as the deputy director of technical services from 2013 to 2017 and she is trained in book conservation. She drafted the Library Disaster Mitigation plan that we are following.

Salvaging the archive material is only the first phase of the recovery plan. The second phase is the conservation process. This delicate work is being assisted by a team of capable conservationists who are working in the triage tent that was set up outside the library on 21 April 2021. (A humidifying tent was added this week.) By 21 April, we knew we would have to deal with damage caused by water as well as fire. The building was not declared safe for entry until the following day, 22 April, when library staff made an initial assessment of the collections that would need to be removed immediately. We have now installed two cold storage containers that assist with freeze drying materials and a humidifier container is expected soon. Pick ’n Pay generously provided us with crates on loan, so that our volunteers could transport the materials with minimal handling. Vehicle transport was also provided by Elliot and Stuttafords and volunteers.

We have been overwhelmed by the immense generosity of everyone who has responded to the archives crisis. In addition to the response within Cape Town, we have been joined by skilled conservation colleagues from the University of Pretoria and as far away as Cologne, Germany. We have also been receiving advice from colleagues in the Smithsonian Museum and the Library of Congress Preservation Unit in the USA. Because of the high volume of materials that need to be conserved, the process is expected to take some time. More assistance will be needed before the task is completed.

UCT remains vigilant against the possibility of flare-ups from the fire

After the fires on campus were extinguished, Campus Protection Services (CPS) assigned a fire-spotting team to patrol Upper Campus and to watch for possible flare-ups in the vegetation along the mountain slope. These CPS colleagues are active 24/7 and equipped with fire extinguishing equipment and mobile, 1 000-litre water tanks. Between 27 and 30 April 2021, the CPS team put out six flare-ups, using the water tanks.

We are inspecting all fire alarm and fire suppression systems for possible damage and are increasing the training of staff in fire extinguishing methods.

We are continuing the close partnership that was developed between UCT, SANParks and the City of Cape Town during the #UCTFire. In addition to removing vegetation and compost from campus property, we are working closely with SANParks to remove trees that fell during the fire, while also protecting against soil shift and the possibility of mudslides when the winter rains arrive. Barriers, soil sheets and sandbags are being used to prevent mudslides.

This new work is in addition to the clearance of vegetation completed by UCT at the beginning of this year, including the removal of dead pine trees, thousands of alien tree saplings, alien vegetation, as well as the cutting back of the lower limbs and lifting the crown of the row of blue gum trees bordering the top boundary of UCT property and Table Mountain National Park.

UCT is a member of the Cape Peninsula Fire Protection Association (CPFPA), comprising SANParks and property owners around Table Mountain. A meeting with CPFPA will take place early this month to recall the event and how resources can best be enhanced and deployed in the event of another fire.

Most of our academic, administrative and residence buildings are back to full operation

  • The ongoing salvage work at the archives below the Jagger Library Reading Room. The Library is now in the process of appointing specialists on contract to help with the conservation phase.
  • Smuts Hall and Fuller Hall residences were reopened this morning, with up to 90% of students returning. Full repairs will take place during the next vacation period to spaces damaged by the fire.
  • The HW Pearson building will be reopened in stages from 1 June 2021 or later. Measures have been put in place to allow some research and teaching to continue in alternative venues.
  • Cadbol House and La Grotta remain off limits. Colleagues who worked in these buildings are working from home.

We are using the rebuilding project as an opportunity to re-imagine the UCT campus

During the restoration process, we will look for ways to make the damaged buildings “greener”, in keeping with our established plan to increase the environmental sustainability of the UCT campus. Some spaces will remain as close as possible to the previous look and feel of the building, while others – such as Cadbol House, La Grotta and the Jagger Library Reading Room – offer the opportunity for reinventing those spaces, within the constraints of heritage, fire and national building regulations. We have established a steering committee and an operations committee to guide the recovery efforts, coordinate communication and ensure close alignment with UCT’s insurer.

We cannot begin in earnest until we have completed the necessary reviews and investigations and confirmed the status of various UCT infrastructure, resources and systems. This process is expected to be completed in the coming months. It comprises phase two of UCT’s four-phase recovery plan, which I described in my message of 29 April.

As always, I remain indebted to everyone across UCT for your unflagging commitment and hard work – not only during and after the #UCTFire but also through COVID-19. As a campus community we will continue to adhere to COVID-19 protocols. Please remember to wear your masks, wash or sanitise your hands regularly and maintain a social distance of 1.5 m even if you are in temporary accommodation. The fire has passed and that is a relief, but the pandemic remains a threat.

Together we will not only build better, but also use this experience to discover and create ways to put into practice Vision 2030. I look forward to seeing the results.


Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng

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