Commemorating the Table Mountain fire

20 April 2022 | VC Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng

Dear colleagues and students

Just 12 months ago, we were reeling from the disaster of the Table Mountain fire and the damage it caused to the University of Cape Town (UCT). We remain grateful, always, that no staff member or student was harmed by the fire or the evacuation process. But that does not mean we were not affected by what we experienced.

It has been a long journey of recovery for all in the UCT community, and we remain appreciative of every internal and external role player in response to and post the tragedy that befall us.

As part of the recovery process, in September last year – during Heritage Month, UCT marked an important milestone in its transformation journey when Khoi and San leaders from the A/Xarra Restorative Justice Forum and B’ia Bradley van Sitters conducted cleansing ceremonies at three locales on our Rondebosch campuses. The group acknowledged the tragedy of the fire damage to the African Studies Collection, which was a particularly painful episode for the Khoi and San too. The fire meant a devastating erasure of knowledge, compounding the already existing problem of linguicide and ethnocide, and the historical erasure of marginalised groups in South Africa.

The rituals represented an important part of the Khoi and San spiritual heritage, with a restorative significance at UCT.

This week, 12 months since that fateful day, we commemorate the fire and its effect on UCT Libraries, with the formal opening of a special Jagger Library memorial exhibition.

“Of Smoke and Ash” was curated by Dr Duane Jethro and Ms Jade Nair of the Centre for Curating the Archive, based in the Michaelis School of Fine Art. This exhibition is not just about what the fire did to UCT and the Jagger Library last year. It is also about our responses to the fire, as an institution; as librarians and curators and knowledge specialists who have the skills and responsibility to make this treasure known to the wider world; and as individuals who are committed to building, learning from and cherishing African knowledge and its place in the knowledge bank of the world.

“Of Smoke and Ash” is open to the public from today, Wednesday, 20 April. I encourage you to visit it. The exhibition honours the process of the mind and heart that began with the fire on 18 April 2021, and the many people around the world who have walked this journey with us so far. It also marks a turning point for UCT Libraries because knowledge is never static. Even when the records of ancient knowledge have been destroyed, the memory of that knowledge holds us accountable. As an African institution of learning, we have a responsibility to that knowledge and to the world that is envisioned in that knowledge.

This exhibition explores the questions posed by the fire, the salvage of the archives and the void of the burnt-out Jagger Library building. Professor Alison Lewis, the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment, is leading a team that will help us reimagine the future of the Jagger Library and the surviving African Studies archives.

So far there have been a couple of sessions facilitated by the Think Tank in the form of Imaginariums with students and stakeholders to imagine the new possibilities for the destroyed library. Emeritus Professor Martin Hall presented and facilitated discussions on university spaces as places for transformation with the Library Working Group and Library Management Team.

We have made a commitment as an institution to “build back better” to help fulfil UCT’s Vision 2030: to unleash the potential of people on campus and to help build a more just society. Soon we will invite comment on this matter from across the UCT campus. I encourage you to share your thoughts and ideas. The actual rebuilding of the space may take a couple of years, including applying for planning permission and Heritage Western Cape authorisation, so we want to ensure that the new facility will serve the UCT of the future. Meanwhile, a temporary roof has been installed over the reading room to protect the heritage structure. Access to the building remains restricted.

We are also assessing the destruction of Cadbol House and La Grotta and considering the future of these spaces. Meanwhile, most of the other buildings that were damaged by the fire were returned to full operation in May 2021. The remaining work includes repairs to the HW Pearson Biological Sciences Building and the mapping and replanting of damaged landscape areas.

We are improving how we monitor and respond to emergency situations, to ensure the safety of students and staff members in all types of emergency. The Properties & Services Department is overseeing fire risk condition surveys and upgrading the fire systems in buildings across campus. Emergency assembly points have been identified at the rugby field on upper campus, the cricket field on middle campus and the Soccer Field opposite Irma Stern Museum on lower campus.

What we have accomplished so far makes it all the more important that we honour the work that remains to us in restoring the Jagger Library. Please make time to visit the exhibition and begin thinking about how you would like UCT to reimagine this important space.

“Of Smoke and Ash”: The Jagger Library memorial exhibition

curated by Dr Duane Jethro and Jade Nair

Michaelis School of Fine Art in the Hiddingh Campus

(Please note UCT Shuttle transport is available to staff and students)

Open to the public from 20 April at 09:00


Yours sincerely

Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng

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