As It Happens

Wildfire guts Cape Town library's priceless collection of African history, literature and film

Ujala Satgoor stood frozen, watching in horror as one of the world's most comprehensive collections of African history and scholarship went up in flames this weekend.

Jagger Library's executive director says she stood in 'dumbfounded horror' as the building burned

Firefighters try, in vain, on Sunday 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. (Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images)

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Ujala Satgoor stood frozen, watching in horror as one of the world's most comprehensive collections of African history and scholarship went up in flames this weekend.

The Jagger Library at the University of Cape Town in South Africa — home to priceless rare films, books and manuscripts — was badly damaged in a wildfire that raged through campus and the surrounding areas.

"The immediate reaction was one of dumbfounded horror at the spectacle that confronted me. And as I just stood there, I became even more numb," Satgoor, the historic library's executive director, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"It's just a numbness and a sense of complete helplessness. It's out of your control. And there's nothing that one could do to [but] just stand aghast and look at."

Firefighters walk through the burnt out remains of the library on Tuesday. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

About 90 per cent of the fire had been contained as of Wednesday, the Table Mountain National Park authority said, after firefighters worked for three days straight battling the flames.

It started early Sunday and, fuelled by strong winds, ripped down and across the slopes of the mountain toward residential areas overlooking downtown Cape Town. Neighbourhoods were evacuated while some 250 firefighters mostly kept the flames at bay and away from homes.

In all, 11 buildings were destroyed, six firefighters were injured, and nine other people were treated for breathing problems because of smoke inhalation, city authorities said.

A raging fire burns above Vredehoek in Cape Town on Monday. Around 600 hectares of land burned in the wildfire, the Table Mountain National Park authority estimated. (Brenton Geach/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

The University of Cape Town campus was one of the first sites to be hit, and appears to have suffered the most damage. 

Numerous buildings at the university burned, including a 225-year-old windmill and a renowned restaurant and tea room near a memorial to British colonial politician Cecil Rhodes.

The nearly 100-year-old Jagger Library was partially destroyed, and with it, many "priceless" pieces of African history, including films, manuscripts, art, photographs and first-edition books, the university said.

Satgoor called it "an eclectic mix of materials that's historical as well as contemporary."

The university is still in the process of determining exactly how much has been lost, but Satgoor estimates that 75 per cent of the library's extensive African Studies Collection has been damaged beyond repair. 

The charred remains of books at Jagger Library. Executive director Ujala Satgoor says some of the books lost to the flames were rare first-editions. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

She says her heart goes out to the artists and scholars who entrusted their lives' work to the library, as well as her fellow librarians who have worked diligently for years to curate the vast collections.

"For example, the film collection … was developed over a period of 20 years by a single librarian, and she's retiring this year. So you can imagine how devastated she is," Satgoor said.

"The human loss attached to this is of equal importance, because it requires dedication, commitment and passion to build such collections. And so a collection doesn't evolve on its own. There's the human intervention that allows a collection to be built."

Jagger Library archivist Michal Singer confirms some older materials were undamaged by the fire. (Submitted by Ujala Satgoor)

But there is some hope amid the ashes. Satgoor says some of the library's oldest materials, kept in the basement, were spared from the flames. 

"We were granted permission to enter the building today by the technical team and we were worried about water damage," she said.

"But once we went in, it was a huge relief to see that despite the water actually pouring into the basement, we were able to pump it out … and we were then able to to enter it and to be able to see that a lot of the collection was untouched."

What's more, she says her staff — with the help of librarians from around the world — are already working to rebuild.

The team had already been in the midst of a massive digitization project when the fire struck, she said, so while some original materials are lost forever, their digital copies remain. 

"We are committed to sourcing materials now from all over the world, other institutions that may have duplicates, looking for things in alternative formats so we can rebuild this collection," Satgood said.

"We're committed to doing that. And I suspect that with the collaboration and co-operation of the global network, we will be able to build this collection again."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo.

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