What We Lost in the Fire

Cape Town burned for three days this April in one of the worst fires that I can remember. I woke to the sound of helicopters transporting water from the dam in the city to the mountainside that was on fire. I fell asleep to the sound of sirens from fire engines, hoping that the wind wouldn’t pick up during the night as it did on the first night. The fire ravaged national heritage sites and the library and residences of the University of Cape Town, before snaking its way over the mountain to continue on its path of destruction. In its wake, thousands of students had to be evacuated from the residences and we watched with shock and horror the devastation of the Jagger Library housing Special Collections and the African Studies library. The African Studies archive is priceless and includes texts drawing on hundreds of years of African history, in different languages and formats, that attest to the humanity of the people of this country and continent.

As the neighbouring suburb was evacuated on the second day, I found myself once again thinking about what I would save if it came to that. Just over a year ago, we were evacuated as a result of a different mountain fire and analogue photographs of my children featured prominently, along with my passport and laptop. This time though, I have treasured documents, such as my father’s education certificates, black-and-white photographs that I found amongst his papers, and sporting paraphernalia, including his rugby jersey, gymnastics vest, and club badges.

I visited the Special Collections library a few years ago while doing a course on non-fiction African Literature. We were discussing the assassination of H.F. Verwoerd, who, as Prime Minister of South Africa (1958-1966), vigorously championed apartheid and segregation. The library had related documents and newspapers of the assassination, the subsequent trial, and its outcome, as well as video footage of an interview with the assassin, Dimitri Tsafendas. I remembering entering the library with a sense of reverence, tiptoeing through the reflective, almost-spiritual space. We discussed the material that the librarian had prepared for us in hushed voices, our attention momentarily diverted by other articles and advertisements that served to enrich the context of the article of our focus. I always meant to return, but my academic journey continued on another campus and I am shattered by the loss of these and other historical records. At this stage, it isn’t clear exactly how much damage was done and it is possible that fire security systems and digitalisation have saved some of this valuable cultural heritage.

The process of digitising my own family photographs as an alternative archive in the absence of recorded histories has helped me to unearth the stories that they contain and to preserve them for my children and their children. However, there is something undeniably precious about handling the physical archive like the hard copies of my father’s teaching certificates that were still contained within an original cardboard mailing tube when I found them. The tube had been covered with brown paper and bears, a white label addressed to Mr. Abdul G. Kamies, 15 Nairn Street, Woodstock, handwritten in faded ink, underneath the heading: In Diens van Haar Majesteit/On Her Majesty’s Service. There are traces of red sealing wax and I can just make out the stamp that reads: Postage Free, Cape Town, Department of Education, Cape Provincial Administration.

As I unroll the contents, the musty smell of old paper is released and the three certificates rustle as I smooth them out. One is in English and was issued in 1958 and is probably the one that was posted in the tube; the other two are both in Afrikaans and dated 1956. I can imagine my father’s excitement on receiving it and I can see him fetching the other two from wherever they were saved and rolling all three up tightly together before inserting them into the tube for safekeeping.  They were never displayed and perhaps that’s where they remained until I found them more than 60 years later.

This alternative archive that I have been building over the last few years has taken on more importance since my father’s death from COVID in January this year. As I seem to be slowly but surely moving up the ladder to when I will be among the next generation of elders, I have a keen sense of responsibility to gather the stories before they are lost forever. In the time that I have been working on my project regarding the traditions, photographs, and oral histories of growing up ‘coloured’ in South Africa, three of the people who shared their stories with me, all in their 80s, have died. The stories they had to tell were contained in photographs that were handled and spoken to in a way that a digital photograph could not replicate. In spite of often being poorly composed, out of focus, or even damaged, they are valuable for the different viewpoints they provide of a contested history that sought to deny our dignity and our worth because of the colour of our skins, the sleekness of our hair, and the shape of our noses. It is this tangible heritage with its irreplaceable human imprint that the fire has destroyed.