Heritage under fire

In the past years, heritage and its reciprocal relationship with society have been in the news and also circulates in everyday conversations. Again, so when the recent fire in Cape Town destroyed amongst others the University of Cape Town’s Jagger Reading Room and significant parts of the library, Fuller House, Cadboll House, Mostert’s Mill, hectares of fynbos on Table Mountain and the old Tea Room close to Rhodes Memorial.

Firefighters trying to extinguish a fire in the Jagger Library, at the University of Cape Town. Rodger Bosch/AFP via Getty Images

There was no loss of human life. However, when fires running wild dramatically destroy heritage, the suddenness of loss invites us to reflect on the value of what is lost. We realise that heritage, both natural and made, provides us with connecting points to culture, to communities,  environment, to history and  values we choose today to uphold for future life. Therefore, when heritage is destroyed, our vulnerability is exposed and connections with the past and future weaken.

The 200 year old Jagger library and reading room are a layered heritage within heritage – as heritage buildings, they are also the home the home of a unique range of heritage texts. These include parts of the African studies collections with texts by Neville Alexander and IB Tabata, the Black Sash, and the Bleek records of San and Khoisan culture. A range of irreplaceable texts from across society, such as activist pamphlets, corporate minutes, original music manuscripts, the drawings and documents of architect Herbert Baker and graduate theses are in conversation with each other and those visiting. Sarah Emily Duff, a historian of South Africa based at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, writes that the “archive is special for all sorts of reasons, and for me it’s because it includes collections which provide a record of the ordinary lives of ordinary people in the area — from working-class children to Black students attending night school.” Although total losses of the African Collection were initially anticipated, they were only partial, though the African film collection was lost.

Dr Martha Evans, a lecturer in media studies at UCT, said on camera the “reading room was her church. It was a space that somehow transcended the divisions that have afflicted the institution in recent years”. Dr Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk, a lecturer in film and television studies, reported to TimesLIVE that “the losses are more than just the physical materials, but also the place of the library in the ecology of learning”.

Automated shutters protected the library’s rarest items, but the assessment and documentation of loss are continuing. Technology also helped by keeping digital copies of items, though not all items are digitally available. The estimated loss, though not yet official, is said to be more than R1 billion.

The Cape Town fire highlighted the link between cultural heritage and natural heritage. Natural heritage was destroyed in the form of vegetation on the slopes of Table Mountain, where the fire started. At the same time, research on this natural heritage came under fire. The UCT Bolus Herbarium, situated in the Pearson building and dating back to 1865, survived. Still, the fire partially damaged the Plant Conservation Unit, where researchers study fossilized pollen as part of the process to understand climate change.

In their article on the causes of wild fires such as the recent fire in Cape Town, researchers Brian van Wilgen and Nicola Bredenkamp write that it is important to determine the causes to eliminate these where possible. According to them, “wildfires are the inevitable consequence of three factors coming together at the same time: weather that is conducive to the establishment and spread of a fire; enough fuel of the right type and arrangement to carry the fire; and a source of ignition to start it”. Some of these should be addressed on a global scale such as global changes in the weather that contribute to conditions conducive to spreading fire. Population density is linked to an increase in wildfires. Plantations of alien trees such as pine trees, significantly increase the fuel for wildfires.  These invasive alien pines also eliminate the fynbos’s biodiversity and reduce water runoff.

Heritage is interweaved with our identities, well-being and future. Ultimately the fire in Cape Town calls on us as a society to be aware of and take responsibility for heritage, which is interconnected with our lives and the lives of those and that we love.

When heritage is lost through slow decay or the gradual creep of invasive aliens into our fynbos heritage, the loss seems to be diluted, easy to ignore, for instance in the case of the Herbert baker building in Languedoc, pine trees deep in Jonkershoek, or certain buildings in Dorp street.

Also see Simone Haysom’s article on the experience of loss during the Cape Town fire.