A library at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in flames (courtesy the University of Cape Town)

A wildfire that engulfed Cape Town, South Africa, has decimated valuable historic archives of African history at the city’s university. The University of Cape Town (UCT) is home to one of the largest collections of first-edition books, films, photographs, and other primary sources documenting African history.  

In a letter to students and colleagues on Sunday, April 18, UCT Libraries’ executive director Ujala Satgoor wrote that his staff watched the library in flames “with horror and helplessness.”

Satgoor confirmed the Jagger Library Reading Room was “completely gutted,” but said that a fire detection system in place prevented the spread of the fire to other parts of the library. Several other buildings on campus and around the city, including a historic mill, were damaged in the fires.

The blaze, which erupted on Sunday on the slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain, has largely been contained, according to the latest reports. However, authorities remain on high alert, fearing that high winds and hot, dry conditions might cause flareups.

The mountain blaze had spread to the city’s center, causing the evacuation of residential areas and injuring five firefighters. So far, no deaths have been reported. Local authorities are investigating the cause for the blaze, though wildfires in the mountains around Cape Town are common during the arid summer months. An unidentified man in his 30s was arrested on suspicion of arson, but it remains unclear if he was responsible for setting the blaze on Sunday.

About 4,000 students were evacuated from their campus residences on Sunday, and the university suspended all operations until at least Tuesday. Meals are being provided to the students, who reported food shortages.

While unconfirmed reports have speculated that the library’s basement, which houses the bulk of the archive, may have been flooded during the firefighting effort, Satgoor says that “a full assessment can only be done once the building has been declared safe and we can enter the building.”

Pippa Skotnes, a curator of the school’s archive, said on Monday that the university’s African film collection, one of the largest in the world, had been lost to the fire. The collection included about 3,500 archival films made in Africa or featuring Africa-related content.

“We are of course devastated about the loss of our special collection in the library, it’s things that we cannot replace. It pains us to see what it looks like now in ashes,” UCT’s vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng said to reporters on Monday. “The resources that we had there, the collections that we had in the library were not just for us but for the continent.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...