Public Statement on the Fire that Destroyed UCT African Studies Library and Special Collections

21 Apr 2021
21 Apr 2021




18 APRIL 2021

San tsȋ Khoe |Guisib ǁKhō-Universitait di

Digital Archive Ôa!nās ǁaegub Afrikab ǂNÅ«khoen ǁKhāǁkhāsenǂgādi:

!Nurib UCT Afrikab ǁKhāǁkhāsenǂgādi Archive |aes

!Oaxasib 19 !Hoaǂkhaib (Aprili) 2021 ai





‘I am absolutely devastated. I am numb.’

– Eshcha Adams, Masters’ research student and school teacher, San and Khoi Unit, UCT

It is with great distress that we issue this statement as a research group on the digital archive in light of the fires that burned down the African Studies Special Collections Library on 18 April 2021. But we write also with the hope that comes with the promise of the fire lilies after the devastation of fire. This tragedy highlights the need to address regrettable misconceptions on the value of institutionalized libraries and archives as ‘colonial’ only. There is the perception that black and indigenous histories are only ‘oral’ and that these archives therefore don’t matter. As illustration of this misconception, this archive held, amongst others, the narrative around //Kabbo and his dream to tell his story. Indigenous people told their stories to missionaries and others. This – while embedded in the violence of colonialism – also means that these stories could survive, beyond their lifetime as their response to the ever-increasing encroaching destruction of colonialism. Further, the first mission educated Africans actively and deliberately collected oral traditions and published them in African language newspapers over 160 years ago, with the full intention that these would be preserved in archives for future generations of African children. Our African ancestors collected, published and preserved these knowledges during the colonial era  because they understood that colonialism, as they were living through it, was destroying indigenous knowledge at a rapid rate. Wherever these precious documents are kept, on the continent or overseas, they are our cultural and intellectual inheritance. To illustrate this point, the motto in the Coat of Arms of South Africa - !Ke e: /Xarra //Ke - is actually the voice of the /Xam people in the archive. If that archive of the /Xam people was never captured, South Africa would never have had this motto in the Coat of Arms. This loss of documents in the library is devastating as there has been a severe loss of oral histories in the de-Africanised Western Cape, for instance, on the ancient histories and languages. Today’s colonial archive –however problematic-  gives us some sense of that loss as we filter through historic distortions. This devastation reminds us of when the great libraries in Alexandria, Timbuktu and Rio were destroyed.  These were huge losses to all humanity and they were rightfully mourned. To counter ignorance on the importance of archived knowledge, institutions have the responsibility to ensure that young people know their archives and their value for future generations. With this fire, our work as researchers and educators on the archive (in its multiple entirety as both tangible and intangible) has become even more important than we have ever realized. Because the colonial archive is largely in written form and not easily accessible (especially to researchers from the global south), we do not know in totality what was held in this archive and the extent of the loss and its impact in the present and future. Yet, ironically and importantly, this fire is helping us think about the relationship we had with this archive and the related issues of access and control. Whatever was there, we’ll never know fully, and that loss is immense in itself for the people of southern Africa. If these archives were more closely integrated in our teaching programmes, it would encourage literacy through interaction and engagement. Because the devastation of the fire emphasizes the importance of the digitization of the archives for all, we also hope that as we build from these ashes, we will establish an approach that will give equal access to the archives to our people and to also the scholars of the global south. This work and its importance in restoration impacts directly on the work of the San and Khoi Centre and our work as an inter-university research team on the digital archive and endangered languages. We have a significant ancient archive that resides with the community and in light of this devastation, preserving this unrecorded archive is now gaining increased importance and urgency. 

To support the ongoing work of this research team, please write to:

Dr June Bam-Hutchison, Interim Director, San and Khoi Unit, UCT.

Pedro Dausab, Khoekhoegowab Subject Matter Expert, Namibia and San and Khoi Unit, UCT.

Professor Ana Deumert, Linguistics, UCT

Martin Gluckman, - Language Computational Linguist

Robyn Humphreys, PhD student in Archaeology, San and Khoi Unit, UCT.

Tauriq Jenkins, A/Xarra Chair, and Community Engagement Strategist, San and Khoi Centre, UCT

Prof Pamela Maseko,  Nelson Mandela University

Prof Nomalanga Mkhize, Nelson Mandela University

Bradley Van Sitters, Khoekhoegowab researcher, San and Khoe Unit, UCT.

See link below to read statement in NAMA:

Statement about fire in NAMA

Translated/adapted into Nama by Pedro Dausab

See link below to read statement in isiXhosa:

Statement about fire in isiXhosa

Translated/adapted into isiXhosa by Sanele Ntshingana

See link to African Studies online special collections:

See link to EWN news article:

*Correction to EWN news article: Dr June Bam-Hutchison