Things had changed for both me and UCT when I returned to start my master’s of documentary arts in 2018. I was discernibly older than when I had started my undergraduate studies at the university back in the mid-1990s, my midriff had expanded substantially, and a few cracks were beginning to show in the façade. While UCT… well, now that I think about it, pretty much the same. But while my relationship with the institution was as conflicted as ever – surprise, it’s not perfect – this time around I allowed myself to appreciate the beauty of the physical campus. I gorged myself on it. I took pride on getting to campus just after six in the morning, getting myself a coffee and fresh koeksisters at the similarly early-rising food court, plonking myself on Jammie Campus – I’m not sure if the steps’ name had changed, in keeping with the hall overlooking it – and snapping the sunrise.
By the end of my first month back, I had shamelessly swamped the ‘Gram with portraits of the campus. I did likewise when I visited the Jagger Reading Room for the first time a few months into my studies. Now, I had been to that part of the library in the 1990s. I had worked there often as a student assistant (I seem to recall that it housed Short Loans back then, but don’t trust my creaky memory) and, briefly after finishing my honours degree, as a card-carrying staff member. Now I gawped and drooled. And it wasn’t just that I had shed my inhibitions and the venue was gorgeous, which makes being a student a joy, I found. But by 2018 I’d also had the privilege of visiting several campuses around the country, from the Eastern Cape to Limpopo. I had been to labs overrun with toys, and labs where students lined up five or 10 abreast to share a little piece of equipment. I had wandered through libraries cavernous, while elsewhere had heard lecturers bewail their institutions’ meagre holdings. This time around, I allowed myself to appreciate UCT. In the Jagger Reading Room, I felt I could simply snap my fingers and the staff would be able to find what I needed. (Yes, they would right also have snapped off my fingers had I been that rude. Despite their reputation as genteel and bookish, library staff, I have found everywhere, don’t stand for attitude).
Other than an initial pang of guilt, I embraced my good fortune at being a student with all that wealth of resources at his fingertips. Newspapers, photographs, rare copies of long-forgotten documentaries, all there if I needed it. Understandably, when I saw online visuals of the Jagger Reading Room in flames, I was shocked. My first thought went to the materials that I had used there not too long ago. “All probably gone now”, I WhatsApped friends. Some material, I read later, had been in safe-keeping (kind of literally). Many more had been lost, with some likely irreplaceable. As someone for whom the library in his Cape Flats community was an escape, I perhaps mourn the loss even more. Especially in the wake of a year where few students had been able to avail themselves of the facility.
Morgan Morris holds a BA and BA (Hons) from UCT, completed in 1995 and 1996 respectively. He will eventually complete his MA.
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