In April 2021 the Jagger library at UCT caught fire – the flames engulfing irreplaceable material stored in the Special Collections archive.

As was reported at the time, the university library’s special collection consists of books and pamphlets that exceeds 85 000 items on African studies alone. “The collection of African film is among the most extensive in the world, with over 3 000 films available for viewing and research.”

Patric Mellet, a heritage practitioner and liberation activist, said the destruction of the African Studies library at UCT is the worst tragedy for intellectual record.

“I am in tears. The African Studies Library at UCT is in flames. I lodged my printers archive of over 1 500 publications that I printed over 14 years of exile when I ran the liberation movement printing press. These were mostly a record of the underground publications.”

A later assessment found that a vast majority of the African Studies Published Print Collection (about 70,000 items) and the entirety of the African Studies Film Collection DVDs (about 3,500 items) had been destroyed, along with documents relating to the university itself as well as any manuscripts or archives being kept in the Reading Room for digitization or after being digitized.

What was the cause?

It has been difficult to find what started the fire, but at last it has come out: poor maintenance.

While the UCT authorities and the senior staff were engaging in such worthy activities as re-imagining the archive for what they call an “Afrikan memory and identity” they failed to do the most basic work: ensuring their collection was safe.

Pine needles, blown by the wind, collected in the gutters. Nothing was done about it. When the fire swept down the mountain side they were tinder dry and embers caused them to ignite. The fire spread from the roof downwards, engulfing the library.

All that it would have taken to avoid millions of Rands of damage was a maintenance worker and a ladder clearing the blocked gutters.

You can see this spelled out in the official report.

What what was lost, and at what cost?

Again, this is now clear. These two slides show what damage was caused and what has been spent trying to repair it.

The tragedy need never have happened if UCT administrators had been doing their job. But where’s the fun in simple maintenance, when one can engage with the joys of “decolonising” an intellectual tradition?