On the burning of UCT's books

RW Johnson asks why the campus was not secured against the ever-present threat of fire

If you live in Cape Town you get used to more or less crazy stories involving UCT. We’ve had episodes in which the Vice Chancellor was accused of bullying. Amazingly, it emerged that when she had applied for the job her referees had warned of this problem – and been ignored.

One hears peculiar boasts that it is some sort of achievement that the vice-chancellor and the whole bevy of deputy VCs are women, though this was presumably due to accidents of birth rather than any positive sex changes.

There was then a rumpus over research by Professor Nattrass in which the university authorities behaved in a bizarre and disgraceful manner. Most recently we’ve had a row over a political science lecturer who told his students that Hitler committed no crime and merely did what whites had always done to blacks.

Apart from the obviously offensive nature of these remarks, they revealed such an abysmal intellectual level that one had to wonder how such an appointment could have been made.

During my own time as a university administrator I concluded that one had two supreme duties. First, one had to work continuously to raise academic standards. At the very least these should never fall. Everything else had to be subordinate to that. Secondly, one had to preserve and improve the institution’s physical plant and intellectual capital.

It has been apparent for some time that UCT has been quite deliberately failing on the first score. One heard continuously of extremely able academics who were told that on purely racial grounds they would not be considered for appointment – and at the same time one learned of appointments which were inexplicable in terms of academic merit. Many Cape Town parents, hearing such reports, sent their children to Stellenbosch.

However, the recent fire which devastated the UCT campus suggests that the university authorities have also failed completely on the second score as well. The historic Jagger library has been gutted and at least some of its major collections lost. In addition the Archives next to the library have apparently also suffered gravely.

It is impossible to exaggerate the significance of these losses. Not just books but letters, manuscripts, watercolours, maps and other artefacts, many of them priceless, have been lost. UCT had the oldest library and archives in the country and researchers from all over the world came to consult them.

To be blunt, the loss of a sports centre or a residence doesn’t matter much. Presumably they were insured and can be replaced easily enough. But the Library and the Archives were the crown jewels, UCT’s most precious and quite irreplaceable intellectual capital.

One always hears how the burning down of the great library at Alexandria was the greatest loss that the classical world ever suffered. The damage to the UCT library and archives are a similar and appalling loss to the study of African history, biography, politics, economics, anthropology, botany, ecology and many other disciplines.

I have to declare an interest: I recently donated to the library what was certainly the world’s best collection of materials on Guinea, in West Africa. Much of this was irreplaceable. I have no idea whether it survived. UCT never bothered to thank me for the gift so I doubt that they will bother to let me know its fate.

My wife and I lived high on the mountain for thirteen years. Fire was a continuous worry and we were once evacuated at 4 a.m. as the flames swept towards us. But we observed the two key rules: don’t allow eucalyptus trees on the property because they pose a terrible fire risk and don’t allow trees or bushes to grow near any building. That way, if fire consumes the vegetation at least the buildings will be safe. We suffered no damage.

Were such rules not observed at UCT on this occasion? What on earth were the university authorities doing to secure the campus from the threat of fire? UCT has occupied its present site since 1928 and has survived innumerable mountain fires unscathed, so what was different this time? How on earth could the fire spread to major university buildings? There should have been a wide cordon sanitaire of cleared ground acting as a fire-break right round the campus.

But it seems clear that this was not the case. Failure to maintain such a fire-break constitutes a major dereliction from the authorities’ basic duty to preserve and protect the university’s physical plant and intellectual capital. One can already imagine some very difficult conversations with the university’s insurers who will want to know why such important buildings and collections were left so vulnerable to fire. There can be no good answer.

This is such a basic failure – and one which has now done irremediable damage to the university – that clearly the entire top level of management ought to consider their positions. The Vice Chancellor, Dr Mamokgethi Phakeng, now knows that whatever she might otherwise achieve, she will go down in history as the Vice Chancellor on whose watch UCT suffered irreversible harm, permanently damaging the whole field of African studies. Resignation would seem the only honourable course.

In recent time many of South Africa’s museums have suffered grievously and some have probably gone under altogether. The loss of heritage is devastating. One continually hears of buildings and memorials not being kept up. Even Mandela’s old house now stands in ruin. Anyone who has recently tried to use the National Archives knows that they are in a deplorable mess. South Africa’s history is being lost and destroyed on every hand.

Unfortunately, the loss of a major part of the country’s historic heritage due to a fire probably started by arsonists is all too symbolic of contemporary South Africa. It is also typical of today’s South Africa that the UCT authorities have been preoccupied with all kinds of foolish political correctness while they have neglected their basic duty to protect the university’s buildings and intellectual capital.

Unsurprisingly the local media led with stories about students being rehoused and fed, while the BBC, the Washington Post and other major international media led with the shocking loss of the library. Rightly so, for that is a major loss to world learning, the inconvenience to students a little local difficulty.

This has another dimension. There is currently much agitation in Europe about the possibility of returning historical artefacts and artworks to Africa. Traditionally, however, many of the great European collections have refused to make such restitution because they fear that these artworks and artefacts will not survive long in many African countries – they will be neglected, lost, stolen, allowed to rot or hawked to private collectors. It is impossible to deny the reality of such fears.

Until recently, however, South Africa was seen as something of an exception. Here there were universities, museums, libraries, archives and art galleries which did a tolerable job of preserving such treasures. UCT’s reputation took a blow a few years back when, in pursuit of some politically correct foolishness, all manner of historic paintings were torn down and some of them destroyed. But what has happened now at the Jagger Library and the Archives will cause major ripples of alarm.

If it is unsafe to leave one’s books or papers or pictures to UCT, donors will take note. Historically, after all, UCT was probably the safest place in South Africa to which to bequeath things. The lesson drawn now is that nowhere in Africa is safe.

I have already found that friends with major collections have willed them to institutions in Britain or America. It is impossible to disapprove, for at least that way they will be preserved. But with each such bequest South Africa loses more of its history. The fecklessness of the UCT authorities has played its part in this.

RW Johnson

This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.