From the ashes of disaster…?

A Reflection on the UCT Fire

Watch | Cape Town fire: Dreadful scenes as UCT Library goes up in flames
photo by Gift of the Givers

The Library of Alexandria in 48BC, The Ahmed Baba Institute of Timbuktu in 2013 and now the Special Collections housed in the Jagger Reading Room at UCT – all that knowledge and heritage destroyed by fire!

Whether such collections are lost through the power of nature, arson or a Kristallnacht type of book burning, the loss of scholarship is tragic. I went down a Google rabbit hole when looking up dates of the these fires and was horrified to realize just how many such fires have destroyed archives of learning over the centuries around the world, most maliciously done.

This photograph of people standing helplessly by as the Jagger Building burned is etched in my mind – It sums up the impotence so many Ikeys felt as part of our alma mater was ripped away by Nature and we were forced to watch it on Instagram or YouTube.

It seems as though some of the collection at UCT may have been protected by fireproof roller doors which were activated timeously but countless pieces were lost, and the Reading Room is gone.  Herbert Baker’s grand pillars seem to have survived though – read into that what you will!

My mother was a librarian. For her, books and the worlds embodied in them were sacrosanct: God help one of us who was caught writing in a book – If it was in pen, not even God would help you – such an act of sheer blasphemy was likely to damn us to hell (but not always heeded by herself as I was to discover recently on opening her copy of the Combined Works of Shakespeare. However, we’ll forgive her brief hypocrisy because it was a treat to see her writing again after 26 years without her in my life.)

She is the one who taught me to read when I was five and the magic of stories, with their worlds of excitement. I remember asking her if she regretted never having been able to travel the world, and she replied that she had been to all the ends of the earth and under it, in her precious books.

She was offered the position of setting up the first library at the new Koeberg Nuclear Plant in the seventies and was really excited at the prospect of being the guardian of research and scholarship there. However, she turned them down in the end. It was only as a parent myself, that I realized the incredible sacrifice she made for my sister and I in accepting a lowly clerical job in a bank (but which paid more) so we could attend the school of her choice, a prestigious girls’ school in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town, closer to where we lived. She would have beggared herself in order to ensure we achieved the private school education she had never had.

It was the same when the time came for me to go to university. If I had not been fortunate to be offered a bursary to study at the University of Cape Town, she would have made a plan – she told me she had already contacted the bank manager about it, when my funding came through.

So, for me to see the Jagger building and its African Studies collections so easily obliterated, I can imagine Sylvia Markey groaning in despair and my own soul echoes her moans.

I remember my time in the eighties there: the burgeoning political awareness I experienced immersed in studying isiXhosa and Sesotho; realizing my own privilege and the power entrusted in me to make a difference in our nation; of standing alongside my friend, Xoliswa on Jammy steps as she declared, ‘Look! Bonteheuwel is burning’; of teargas and riot police swaggering along the freeway; of Xoliswa’s rich alto over the megaphone, as she stood outside the Jagger Library as it was known then, singing the haunting struggle songs. ‘We shall Overcome.’

And we did…

… until perhaps we didn’t.

If this fire has jolted anything from my middle-aged heart, it’s a need to do a Mister Chips (I know that’s really dating myself, but I like to think I am in the ‘noontime, not the evening of myself) type of reflection of how I’m doing on changing the world. As I grieve the loss of the writing treasures in Jagger, and the library there that nourished me, as well as the lecturers like Sam Mbiza across the road who educated me and inspired in me a love of the beauty of isiXhosa, and a respect for its cadences, I must ask myself whether I have done enough to promote the study of African literature across my teaching career, which ended up being mainly sharing my own mother tongue with others. Have I filled the world with love – of reading; have I filled the world with hope through education?

It is my hope that another such reckoning closer to the end of my life (a long time away of course, because I still plan to live long enough to be a problem to my own children) will allow me to rejoice in the scholarly works of those whose studies in African Languages started in schools where I have introduced the language to study; that someone I have taught will translate nuclear physics textbooks into isiXhosa; that someone I have taught will win a Nobel prize for literature, and that someone I have inspired is the guardian of the African Studies books at UCT… or the library at Koeberg. I must try harder.

We shall overcome.

We must.

Just no more fires.

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