UCT historic library rises from the ashes

Part of the historic Jagger Library was gutted by a fire in April 2021. File picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

Part of the historic Jagger Library was gutted by a fire in April 2021. File picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

Published May 2, 2023


Two years after the fire destroyed parts of Table Mountain and UCT , the university said it was now in a “better position” to proceed with the reconstruction of the historic  Jagger Library.

Regarded as a “jewel in the crown” of UCT and a home to African Studies Collections, rare antiquarian books, film and video collections, the Jagger Library was gutted by the wildfire along with other buildings in April 2021.

“Though the passage of time has eased our sense of shock and loss, we remain on the long journey to recovery. Fortunately, we have not been alone in this process. We are so grateful for the outpouring of support – in words, financial assistance and deeds – from alumni, friends and supporters all over the country, the continent and globally,” said Interim Vice-Chancellor Professor Daya Reddy.

He also said the architect’s project brief for UCT Libraries incorporating the post-fire rehabilitation, refurbishment, upgrade and integration of the Jagger Library Reading Room had been signed off.

Efforts to reconstruct the historic Jagger Library are under way. File picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency(ANA)

“The next step is the appointment of an architect in accordance with the UCT Properties and Services processes. The user group that will guide and advise the master planning process has been finalised and relevant individuals identified for participation. Consideration of how and where to store a new working archive in the future is an important factor in designing and rebuilding the Jagger Library,” Reddy said.

A collaborative project between UCT and DStv also led to the launch in April of a book titled “Stories from the Ashes – Africa’s Story Through the Last Millennium”.

The book is a compilation of remnants and texts salvaged from the burnt Reading Room and flooded basements. It also commemorates the destruction of significant African Studies monographs, film and government publications and collections.

The book includes personal reflections by UCT alumni such as Justice Albie Sachs; former UCT vice-chancellor Dr Mamphela Ramphele; founder member and former CEO of the Steve Biko Foundation, Nkosinathi Biko; and chair of UCT Convocation, Carl Manlan.

Over the past two years, UCT hosted a series of workshops to consider how the university might “re-imagine” the space as a research library with a focus on African history, identity and creative expression.

The university also planned to hold consultations and surveys to gather ideas and suggestions for the final design brief for the library.

“The Jagger Library’s status as a heritage building will also inform this process. Our overall intention is to keep the process as transformative and transparent as possible and in alignment to both UCT’s Vision 2030 and UCT Libraries’ vision,” added Reddy. He added that work on other buildings affected by the fire was progressing well.

Final repairs to the HW Pearson building which housed the Plant Conservation Unit (PCU) were pending City of Cape Town approval.

“The destruction of the PCU’s entire collection of historical photographs – some dating back to 1876 – is a terrible and irreplaceable loss. This collection was essential in chronicling the ecological history of South Africa.”

Repairs to other buildings on upper campus were completed, Reddy added.

Spokesperson for MultiChoice Africa, Nondumiso Mabece, said the project idea represented resilience.

“What really made us sit up and listen was the impact this project would have – on the UCT community, Cape Town, South Africa and the African continent.

“We are passionate about capturing and nurturing those stories because ultimately stories retell our past, they represent our current life, and they tell our future,” Mabece said.

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