UCT fire: Did historic notes on black farmers catch fire?

The University of Cape Town is still coming to terms with the extent of the damage caused by a devastating fire that destroyed, among others, parts of its library buildings. Among the documents feared to be lost are rare correspondences on black agricultural development from 1979

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A series of letters on black agricultural development dating to 1979 is feared to have been lost in the devastating fire that engulfed the Jagger library at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

A full damage assessment is expected within the coming days. However, Food For Mzansi has established that the library also hosted hand-written correspondence between academics about the role of black agriculturists during apartheid.

According to a database search on the university’s AtoM@UCT platform, the correspondence was between researchers only identified as “professors F.R. Tomlinson, F. Wilson, M.T.D. Savage and Dr Merle Lipton”.

It also included exclusive notes and comments on a chapter published in Lipton’s “Farm Labour in South Africa”.

“Some of our valuable collections have been lost,” said Ujala Satgoor, the executive director of UCT Libraries via a statement. “However, a full assessment can only be done once the building has been declared safe and we can enter the building.”

UCT's Special Collections library boasted some 1 500 rare archival collections, many of which are now feared lost due to a devastating fire. Photo: Rodger Bosch/www.news.uct.ac.za
UCT’s Special Collections library boasted some 1 500 rare archival collections, many of which are now feared lost due to a devastating fire. Photo: Rodger Bosch/www.news.uct.ac.za

1 500 rare archival collections

The JW Jagger Reading Room, situated on the Upper Campus, houses irreplaceable documents and records from South Africa’s past, many of which have gone up in flames. Parts of UCT’s Special Collections library, consisting of printed and audio-visual materials on African studies, was also destroyed.

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While a fire detection system triggered fire shutters that prevented the spread of the fire to certain parts of the library, Satgoor confirmed that the Reading Room was completely gutted. Researchers have since set up a page asking anyone with photos or digital scans of the library’s collections to upload them.

According to UCT’s website, the Special Collections library boasted some 1 500 rare archival collections, consisting of original research material relating to the political, social, cultural and economic history of Southern Africa, with a strong focus on the Western Cape.

The collections include, among others, papers of communities underrepresented in archives.

This includes six comments on black agricultural development, including a document filed as “South Africa: Two agricultures: A final reply.”

Many historic documents not yet digitised

Other agricultural collections include some 1 220 letters, notes and photographs from between 1907 and 1980, documenting Alfred Appleyard’s work and years as general manager of the Rhodes Fruit Farms. According to UCT’s website this, as well as the correspondence on black agricultural development, was not yet digitised.

Furthermore, the Laburn Collection was home to 550 items. It comprised of a collection of research material started by Claire Laburn for an essay on Scottish and English agricultural immigrants in the East London district from 1877 to 1883.

“Although this loss will be felt deeply, we will weather this storm and rise from the ashes,” says Satgoor.

UCT palaeoecologist Lindsey Gillson tells Nature, a science journal, “We’ve lost our home, but we haven’t lost our community.”

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