Mourning Our Collective Loss of the African Studies Library and Archive

10 May 2021
10 May 2021

The CCA held a special session on Mourning Our Collective Loss of the African Studies Library and Archive on the 23rd of April.  Below is the introductory text by Dr Duane Jethro, Junior Research Fellow at the Centre for Curating the Archive, and facilitator of the session. If you are interested in accessing a recording, please email 


Archival Grief
Duane Jethro

Welcome, welcome welcome, to our guests near and far, alumni, students and staff, current and past.

On Sunday 18 April  2021, a fire, the fierce perhaps defining element of our times, swept down from the mountain and set our institution ablaze. Our students and staff were evacuated and luckily there were no fatalities or injuries. The Centre for Curating the Archive arranged this session as a space for the substantive gathering and sharing of information about what was lost and what the state of our collections are. Considering the local and national interest in the Bleek and Lloyd Collections, we wished to specifically share information about the state of the collections based on what we know. We are but one centre with an important repository in the library and so wanted to open space for UCT Libraries, Special Collections in particular, and other linked hubs to come in and share with the University community. The session builds on the important statement issued by Vice Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng to the University Community this week about the state of the Jagger Library and our collections. This is but one of many conversations that will occur in the coming weeks and years that attend to the great tragedy of our Library, our lost archives and ways of recovering going forward.

This session is also conceived as a space to in some ways reflect on the experience of the sudden, painful loss of institutional memory. Seeing the video footage of the inferno consuming the Jagger Library on Sunday was profoundly disturbing. It was a nightmare set afire, an intrusion of the real, that remains hard to grasp. The pictures of the burnt out shell of the building are hard to look at, the cinders and soot and charred remains is a hellish heartbreaking site. What does it mean to mourn a library? What is this grief we feel and what is to be done with it? These are the questions we will sit with for a long time still.

As the Vice Chancellor has already explained, “The Jagger Reading Room was home to the significant African Studies Collection, which was started in 1953. This collection of approximately 70 000 published monographs spanned the whole of sub-Saharan Africa and included national imprints from the entire continent as well as works published in Europe and North America. The collections were especially strong in gender studies, media studies, HIV/AIDS issues, and debates around the character of African studies as a discipline. There was an important collection on Southern African languages, donated to the university in the 1950s, which included religious texts and school textbooks as well as dictionaries and grammars. Some of the titles in these collections, published in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were extremely rare.”

But the African Studies Library was more than a repository. It was a foundational space shared by different constituents in our intellectual community. Associate Professor Nadia Davids recently quoted Dorris Lessing, who said, “With a library you are free, not confined by temporary political climates”, as a reverie for the African Studies Library. A student remarked on social media that for her it was a place of solace in the uproar of the Fallist movement and felt like a place of safety after the brutal murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana. For others it was an early passage into the scholarly world, where they may have once worked as assistant librarians as students when it was a short loan reading centre. For many the reading room was a formative place of higher education, a space that shaped an encounter of esteem and a seriousness scholarly disposition to books, as a place of hallowed reading and note taking. It concretised the idea of knowledge resources as precious, potent and held in common. But for black scholars and students it could also be an alien, even colonial space, that asserted a proscriptive culture of learning and knowing. It was a place where one had access to sometimes brutal, raw accounts of one’s past, which in sum suggested you were archived rather than a full agent in the archive. And in the reading room, that knowledge had to be appreciated in complete silence and alone. Going forward the African Studies Library will be a contested space of clashing perceptions and claims, and in that way fulfil its role as a truly democratic space of debate and knowledge exchange.

Nevertheless, whatever formulation of the African Studies Library you sit with, it was a cradle of the University of Cape Town’s institutional memory and intellectual culture. It holds a sacred repository of South African cultural heritage and is a store of invaluable, irreplaceable African knowledge. Fragile and fraught, the Library and its archive is ours to cherish and mourn.

It will be a long time still until we may return to the long tables of the reading room. The requisition slips are cinders and ash. There is no pile of books waiting there. Through the freakish seared steel lattice work of the burnt out roof breaks open a vast and clear blue sky. The grief and anguish and terror of that void is hard to face. Here, we gather to sit with those feelings, to remember in all our differences, pick through the ashes and embark on a process of reconstituting ourselves as an intellectual community.

Shortly, we will have an input from the Dean of Humanities, Professor Shose Kessi, we will then have an input from UCT Libraries and read a report from members of the special collections team. We hope to also have input from other hubs, such as the Bolus Collections. Our Director Pippa Skotness will then give an input about the state of the Bleek and Lloyd collections. Prof. Lungisile Nstebeza is not available, and sends greetings, but we still hope to get a reflection here from African Studies, but we will then open up for some institutional reflection from Prof Carolyn Hamilton from the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative and an input by … We will then open up for questions from the audience.

Concluding Reading

To conclude I will read a short poem, by Siza Nkosi Mokhele, Broken Things, and read a short passage from Vice Chancellor Phakeng’s statement this week:

To quote the Vice Chancellor, then: “We cannot replace the treasures of scholarship we have lost, but we can create new treasures out of our own scholarship. In the same way, each of us can rebuild our own sense of purpose out of this tragedy. Our colleagues in the libraries have a long road ahead of them and many of us feel the devastation of the loss of this significant institutional asset but we will walk this road to rebuild our facilities together.”