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  • Writer's pictureEmma Barnes

A Loss 'for the continent': University of Cape Town Fire

On Sunday 18th April 2021, my social media feed was filled with one image only: the University of Cape Town, engulfed in flames. After originating in South Africa’s Table Mountain National Park, wildfires reached the historic campus, tearing through the University of Cape Town’s Jagger Library, botany building, laboratory and herbarium. Thanks to the 500 firefighters and volunteers who tackled the fire, there were no deaths, and only minor injuries. Yet, the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and scholars globally, have still suffered a significant and collective loss.

Whether witnessing the fire on site, or through an online platform, many researchers watched in horror as the 200-year-old campus was set ablaze. Whilst an official statement has yet to be made outlining the extent of the damage and the materials destroyed, the visible damage to the historic buildings indicates that the fire has had a devastating impact on the documentation and preservation of Africa’s history. The Jagger Reading Room, named after William John Jagger, a benefactor of the university, was home to nineteenth-century paintings by Indigenous inhabitants, as well as maps and manuscripts relating to South Africa’s colonial and military history. University of Cape Town’s Vice Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng told the New York Times: “The resources that we had there, the collections that we had in the library were not just for us but for the continent”. This room is said to be ‘gutted’ by Nature’s Linda Nordling, and recent photographs depict its complete destruction (2021, p.672). Whilst it is hoped that the fire detection system in the Jagger Library prevented the fire from spreading beyond the Reading Room, many fear that the blaze has engulfed the Library’s Special Collections. In addition to the inventory of South Africa’s past, the Jagger Library housed archival materials, artefacts and government records that have inspired many research projects, including this one.

Credit: University of Cape Town

In 2017, our PI Jade Munslow Ong visited the Jagger Library to look at the plethora of archival material relating to Olive Schreiner. This early research inspired thinking about Schreiner as part of a web of international literary and political communities, which we aim to capture in one of the project’s planned outputs: an edited collection titled Olive Schreiner in the World: Contemporaries and Legacies. It is a very real possibility that some of the Schreiner letters and photographs that show her connections to the world have now been destroyed in the fire. The loss of these materials signals a chasm in South Africa’s literary history, and Olive Schreiner’s biography. Thankfully, transcriptions of the letters remain on the Olive Schreiner Letters Online project led by Prof Liz Stanley (Edinburgh), and others have been digitised as part of the University of Cape Town’s Special Collections’ Humanitec Project, spearheaded by another leading Schreiner scholar, Prof Dorothy Driver (Adelaide).

Efforts to recover and collate materials digitally continues – anyone with photos or digital copies of any materials from the library are encouraged to upload the materials to this portal. Hopefully together, we can try to recoup digital versions of these valued archival materials.

Credit: University of Cape Town


Phakeng, M. (2021). Interviewed by Christina Goldbaum and Kimon de Greef for The New York Times, 19 April. Available: Last accessed 22nd May 2021.

Nordling, L. (2021). ‘The damage is total’: fire rips through historic South African library and plant collection. Nature. Available: Last accessed 22nd May 2021.

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