It was with a visceral sense of shock and loss that I watched video footage of buildings on the upper campus of the University of Cape Town, and the Jagger Library in particular, going up in flames over the weekend. A ‘vagrant’s’ cooking fire had got out of control on the slopes of the mountain above the university, a strong North Westerly ‘Berg’ wind had blown the flames down through the tinder-dry brush and the pine trees on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, consuming the restaurant at the Rhodes Memorial, and on down the mountain to set fire to a number of university buildings, including two of the residences and the Jagger Library. The fire jumped De Waal drive and destroyed Mostert’s Mill, one of the best known landmarks in Cape Town, built in 1796 and until Sunday the oldest surviving mill in South Africa. 4,000 students had to be evacuated from the campus. There was a lull in the wind on Sunday evening before it changed direction to become a violent South Easterly that blew the fire round the flank of Devil’s Peak and onto the lower slopes of Table Mountain, threatening the suburbs above the Cape Town city centre.
The library collection dates back to 1829. My mother went to UCT in the late 1920s; three of my four siblings and I were students there in the 1960s and early 1970s; all three of my children and two of their partners were students there in the 1990s. Apart from my mother, who lived in one of the residences that caught fire but who was a student before the Jagger Library was completed, we will all have spent time in that library, so the loss feels directly personal.
Although the full extent of the losses and damage has still to be assessed, it is clear that much of the African Studies collection, housed in the reading room, including the entirety of its film collection has been lost. A loss I feel particularly acutely as a former Professor of African Literature. The film collection was the most extensive one of its kind anywhere, with over 3,000 films available for research and viewing. Fire doors and shutters were triggered and did come down to shut off parts of the university’s collections, but it is not yet known how much damage has been done by the intense heat. It can only be hoped that the collection of very rare books has survived. This includes, by way of example, a copy of a 1535 Dutch Bible, believed to be the oldest in South Africa, in an edition that was suppressed with almost all the copies burned and the publisher condemned to death for its publication, and a copy of the first book to contain photographic illustrations, William Henry Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature, published in 1844. The oldest book in the collection is said to be by a first century Roman historian and moralist, Valerius Maximus, titled Facta et dicta memorabilium, published in Mainz in 1471 by Peter Schöffer, who took over Gutenberg’s press. So there was, and one hopes still is, much to treasure.
The botany building that houses the Bolus Herbarium, the oldest functioning herbarium in South Africa, was also seriously damaged. Although the herbarium appears to have survived, the Plant Conservation Unit, where researchers tracked changes in climate by studying fossilized pollen and comparing historical photos with current-day images, has, according to the unit’s leader Timm Hoffman, a historical ecologist, been totally destroyed.
South Africa is one of the countries of the world in line to be worst affected by climate change. The last time we visited Cape Town, some 18 months ago, the Cape Peninsula was just coming out of a three year drought so bad that at one point the entire city had come within four weeks of having the water mains shut down, and as adults we were effectively rationed to using 35 litres of water a day. The winter that followed saw ‘normal’ rainfall re-established and enabled the dams and reservoirs to fill up again, but the summer just ending has been very hot and dry and the temperature on Sunday was an unseasonal 36 degrees centigrade. Given the prolonged period of drought, and the backdrop of global warming, one might have expected additional precautions to have been taken to protect the University campus from wildfires on the mountain by extending the firebreaks, but this would appear not to have happened. There have been very many wildfires on the slopes above the university since the first buildings were erected on its current site more than a hundred years ago, and none has ever affected the university badly before, but the point about global warming is that events such as this are becoming increasingly likely, which makes suitable measures to combat them the more imperative.
The University of Cape Town is, by all measures, Africa’s premier university. I find myself wondering whether the absence of any coverage of the devastating damage caused by this wildfire from any of the news broadcasts I have seen here, in stark contrast to the coverage of the wildfires in Australia and California in recent years, can be attributed to the fact that this wildfire didn’t kill anyone, although several fire-fighters have been injured, to the fact that it only damaged a university rather than much in the way of residential property, or simply because Africa is perceived not really to matter much.