UCT is stronger because of you

22 July 2021 | VC Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng

Dear colleagues, students, South Africa and friends from across the world

Three months ago, on 18 April 2021, the wildfire on Table Mountain swept downhill and onto the University of Cape Town (UCT). Hundreds of our students had to be evacuated from UCT residences. Buildings, infrastructure and precious archive materials were damaged or destroyed.

It was a day of smoke, fear, flames and loss – a nightmare for everyone who lives on the slopes of the mountain, but especially for those across the continent and the world who value the riches of the special collections and archives that were housed in the Jagger Library. But it was also the start of many days of heroism and generosity. Of people springing to action to help one another and the university. Some of the help came within minutes of our need. Some is still coming to us. The help came from nearby and from other parts of the world; from corporates, non-profit organisations, trained experts, generous neighbours and volunteers, alumni, former staff providing whatever they could, including muscles and time.

Because of the people who reached out and supported us, UCT’s recovery has proceeded at a rapid and exceptional pace. The fire has reinforced my belief in humanity: people with many different talents, gifts and professions, all working incredibly hard to make our campus more resilient, committed to rebuilding UCT into a place of powerful intellect and knowledge, guided with a compassionate heart and a socially responsive purpose. We are able to envisage a better UCT because of the support you have provided to us in our time of need.

What so many of you gave to us after the fire can never be repaid in tangible terms, because it comes from the heart. So, from the heart of UCT, on behalf of the students and staff members you helped, I am writing to give you this message of thanks in the form of a heartfelt video.

Many volunteers provided help anonymously, expecting no personal thanks – simply joining in where they were needed. But we are mindful of the many different groups who were represented among our supporters, and individuals and organisations who came alongside us. Please join me in giving thanks to:

The national and provincial government offices and the City of Cape Town, for their rapid and efficient responses to the emergency.

The Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, and his department for the immediate pledges of assistance in restoring our library assets and assisting our students whose research was disrupted by the fire.

UNESCO Regional Director, Professor Hubert Gijzen, who came to campus on 11 May in support of UCT Libraries. 

The members of UCT Council for their leadership and wisdom

The members of the UCT Executive for leading the teamwork on campus.

Our wonderful students for the many qualities they displayed during the crisis: endurance, courage, in some cases extraordinary bravery and solidarity with one another and UCT staff; and for recommitting themselves to the academic project upon the return to campus.

UCT alumni for their longstanding support, not only in this time of great need but throughout every academic year.

Parents, guardians and sponsors for staying involved with the students they support even from great distances.

The members of the Student Representative Council for their leadership and solidarity.

Every UCT department and faculty, for continuing to demonstrate your excellence on the job even during crisis. I especially want to acknowledge my colleagues in UCT Libraries, Properties & Services and the Department of Student Affairs, for the extraordinary actions they had to take during the fire and its aftermath.

UCT academics, for helping to ensure that our students felt supported during such a traumatic time, and for continuing to display their support as classes and lectures resumed.

UCT professional, administrative support and service staff, for working around the clock to ensure the safety of students, colleagues and the campus, and for the work that they are now doing to help restore buildings and library materials that were lost or damaged.

Donors and non-governmental organisations, for interrupting your full schedules to reach out to UCT at our time of need, and meeting that need with your generous support.

The business community for demonstrating your support of higher education as a way of transforming and rebuilding South Africa. Among the many organisations that responded to our need, we note in particular Pick n Pay Stores, Windmeul, Merrypak, Amazon and Metrofile. 

Philanthropic organisations such as Gift of the Givers, for understanding that higher education and research in Africa is not a luxury but an essential ingredient for creating fair and just society.

Every volunteer who showed up during the fire and its aftermath, to offer your energy, your muscles, your good humour, your donated goods for students in evacuation, your kind support – demonstrating that UCT belongs to everyone in South Africa.

Partners and colleagues in the international community who have sent messages of support, practical advice and expertise, and in some cases boarded a plane to come join us in the weeks after the fire.

Our colleagues in higher education at other institutions in South Africa and abroad, for the messages of support and acts of solidarity, including experts in the Smithsonian Museum and the Library of Congress Preservation Unit in the USA, the University of Pretoria and as far away as Cologne, Germany, who have joined us in salvaging and restoring the precious archives in the Jagger Library.

Members of the media, for reporting that did not just deliver the hard facts of UCT’s losses but also conveyed the magnitude of the loss to South Africa and the very personal nature of this tragedy for staff members and students.

Finally, I express a special vote of thanks to the brave and tenacious teams of firefighters, who fought so hard to protect not only UCT but also the business and residential districts along the slopes of Table Mountain. Our physical presence and safety relies on these skilled warriors, who battle under extreme conditions of heat and smoke and peril. Everyone at UCT joins me in saluting you.

Giving of oneself is a quality UCT seeks to instill in every student, graduate and staff member. It is an important part of social responsiveness, which motivates so much of our groundbreaking research.  It is both humbling and gratifying to be on the receiving end of the giving that has come from outside our campus. But we are stronger, as an institution and as individuals, because of you.

UCT does not only belong to the people who study here or the people who work here; it belongs to all of South Africa – all of Africa. South Africans and many others demonstrated that sense of ownership and pride and solidarity with the institution in the path and the aftermath of the fire.

You can continue to follow UCT’s recovery progress on our website.

Thank you to each of you for standing with us.


Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng

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