JUDITH FEBRUARY: After UCT library fire, we must again look at SA’s painful past


When books burn, a part of us goes too. On Sunday, 18 April we saw raging fires cause devastation to the University of Cape Town and surrounding areas. Parts of UCT’s Jagger Library have burnt down, including its beautiful reading room. Manuscripts, theses and some of the Special Collection in the African Studies Library have been lost.

This is a grievous loss but especially so for those of us whose alma mater UCT is. The campus, with its historic buildings, sweeping mountain views and ivy-clad facades, also occupies a special place in the life of a city which is both beautiful and complex. The university, Cape Town’s intellectual heart and itself a place of considerable complexity, is South Africa’s oldest university.

Firefighters try, in vain, to extinguish a fire in the Jagger Library, at the University of Cape Town, after a forest fire came down the foothills of Table Mountain, setting university buildings alight in Cape Town, on 18 April 2021. Picture: Rodger Bosch/AFP

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire in the Jagger Library, at the University of Cape Town, after a forest fire came down the foothills of Table Mountain, setting university buildings alight in Cape Town, on 18 April 2021. Picture: Rodger Bosch/AFP

As PEN South Africa put it so well in its note of support to UCT, “We grieve the loss of this space and the texts it held, but we know that rebuilding is and will be possible.”

As with any tragedy, there have also been tales of heroic acts. Students resident at Smuts Hall, together with their warden, Professor Kelly Chibale, made desperate attempts to douse the flames as they engulfed ivy, trees, brick and wood. These acts of solidarity and bravery should not be forgotten in the aftermath.

In the same week when we watched UCT burning, we also witnessed a portion of Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg go up in flames. It left us with more tragic scenes and even more questions. Life can be hard in these parts.

FILE: Charlotte Maxeke Hospital after a fire on 17 April 2021. Picture: Twitter @GautengHealth

Charlotte Maxeke Hospital after a fire on 17 April 2021. Picture: Twitter @GautengHealth

The burning of a library and the emotion it evokes also speaks to what makes a society what it is, what matters most to us and how we value knowledge as part of the society we want to build. What is it that should inform our common life?

There were some on social media who used the platform to engage in some cheap sloganeering: “let it all burn!”, they said. It’s colonial knowledge, they cried from behind their keyboards and mobile phones.

It’s easy to mistake social media for what is happening in the ‘real world’. But it is safe to say that the real world is far more complex and layered than the binary propositions social media encourages. In a sense tweets are often easy thinking contained in sound bites designed to offend or shock. Simultaneously, however, social media provides some lens into society’s flashpoints.

As Lesley Cowling and Carolyn Hamilton have written in their introduction to the excellent book they edited, entitled, Babel unbound: rage, reason and rethinking public life: “the old ways of mediating collective life - through public discussion of one kind or another - seem to be falling away, overtaken by a new order of public spectacle, combativeness, hate speech and even violence.”

They make reference to the idea of the ‘public sphere’ as espoused by Jurgen Habermas. His notion of offentlichkeit – “perhaps best described as ‘publicness’- an enabling process of democracy, a space between the people and the state in which public opinion is formed”, is an interesting, if incomplete, starting point.

Habermas, Cowling and Hamilton go on to say, “later became a proponent of deliberative democracy, the idea that problems can be solved by ‘the better argument’ and that certain kinds of debate are crucial to the process of discussion”. Interestingly, the book goes on to theorise about the public sphere outside of the traditional European and American understanding of it.

The fire, our commitment to knowledge and how we rebuild will be informed by the way in which we view public life, the public sphere and how it is mediated.

What we rely upon to understand public life, negotiate it, participate in it in a democracy is reliant on many things.

As Carolyn Hamilton again reminds us in her chapter on The archive and public life: “In public discussions, archives and records - concerning everything from past genocides to the bases of claims to citizenship or the tracking of disease regimes - play a significant role in establishing what is understood as the truth about a matter.”

But as she also points out, archives equally are a topic for heated exchange and “criticised for biases, omissions and inaccessibility, and for underwriting the views of those with power”.

Therefore, what we seek to preserve is neither accidental nor neutral. When students at UCT set artwork alight during the #FeesMustFall protests, the question that was being asked related to what we preserve, how and why? In other words too, what represents the modern-day university and why?

It seems we would do well to think carefully about the linkages between #FeesMustFall protests and the broader debate about the public sphere; what and who informs it, especially as the university seeks to rebuild after the fire. It is, after all, a societal debate and not only the university’s. The university is the repository of this rich tapestry of knowledge on all our behalf.

So inadvertently, the fire and the loss of so much precious materials in the Jagger Library and its special collections will raise the questions, ‘whose knowledge and why?’.

In this deeply contested space, the discussion and decision-making about what rises from the ashes will be challenging, yet has the potential for thoughtful exchange. Or so one hopes. Hashtags and social media platitudes will not assist us, neither will reductionist thinking designed to limit our understanding of the present and the past. A rebuilding of the library and the archives (where possible) will of necessity mean again delving into our painful past and not seeking to relegate what causes discomfort to the proverbial dustbin.

Bricks and mortar can be replaced, but parts of the library collections have been irretrievably lost. It is over this that we lament publicly and in solidarity with UCT. For it all belongs to the rich panoply that makes us uniquely South African and uniquely of this place.

Colonialism and apartheid are part of our past, the legacy of both haunt us today in myriad ways. We should not celebrate and dance on the ashes of what has burnt because they describe to us how we have come to be who and what we are as individuals and as a country.

All of it has significance. The very understanding of the university embraces all knowledge leading to a greater understanding of the world as it is, thereby helping us to create the world as we want it to be.

What rises from the ash at UCT should be richer and even more embracing of the past rather than involving the limited thinking and the cheap politics of now which some would have us espouse.

A lot happens in South Africa in any given week. We had not yet finished lamenting the loss of public knowledge when Norma Mngoma’s testimony at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture grabbed our attention. But in a sense, the two events were not as disconnected as they seemed.

For standing in sharp contrast to the depth of knowledge and understanding of the university is the crass politics of capture. What is a library other than to provide depth to life and help us find the answers to that which ails us now? Mngoma’s appearance spoke volumes about the kind of society we have become and the values of those who hold power.

READ: ‘Ajay Gupta was Malusi Gigaba’s unofficial advisor’ – Norma Mngoma

Mngoma presented a laundry list of ways in which her estranged husband, former Minister Malusi Gigaba had been captured by the Gupta family. It involved, inter alia, much shopping for branded clothes, handbags and a wedding of between R4-5 million which the couple seemed to accept with a perturbing insouciance.

What it reveals (other than pure corruption) is a governing class detached from reality, but also fundamentally empty; empty of knowledge in a world where cars, handbags, shopping trips to Dubai is all that really matters. It reveals an approach to life which is bereft of depth, with people content to wade in the shallows.

The political class has betrayed the promise in exchange for shiny objects.

It is perhaps the single failure of post-apartheid society that we have prized this crass materialism above the pursuit of knowledge and the values which would make our society a more humane one.

In this context rebuilding a library is a veritable act of defiance.

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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