Last weekend a wildfire raged on South Africa’s iconic Table Mountain for more than 24 hours before wreaking havoc across an area containing the University of Cape Town, destroying several campus buildings and forcing thousands to leave their homes. Firefighters have now contained the blaze but perhaps the biggest blow has been cultural: it became clear this week that it caused major damage to important archives of African history held at the university.
Among the buildings gutted in the fire was the Special Collections Library, a national treasure. It housed archival sources including hard-to-find volumes in indigenous languages and one of the world’s largest collections of African films. As a former student at the University of Cape Town, I remember spending hours in the library’s grand reading room, combing through everything from original letters written by one of Africa’s most celebrated artists, Irma Stern, to opinion pieces by anti-apartheid activists. Indeed, the majority of my university thesis papers relied heavily on resources hidden within the archive’s ceiling-high shelves – as well as on the friendly, white glove-wearing team of archivists who patiently helped me source boxes of niche newspaper clippings.
“These were treasures from centuries ago – vital history which can never be replaced,” Gail Symington, a former senior lecturer of classics at the university, told The Monocle Minute. “It’s a complete tragedy.” Far from being glorified book depositories, city libraries are vital protectors of memory. And in a country like South Africa, where the scars of apartheid still run deep, losing voices from the past is nothing short of devastating.
Emma Searle is a producer with Monocle 24.