Opinionista Judith February 4 May 2021

Weighed against the crass materialism of the political class, rebuilding the UCT library is a veritable act of defiance

A lot happens in South Africa in any given week. We had not yet finished lamenting the loss of public knowledge in the UCT fire when Norma Mngoma’s testimony at the Zondo Commission grabbed our attention. But in a sense, the two events were not as disconnected as they seemed.

When books burn, a part of us goes too. On Sunday, 18 April we saw raging fires cause devastation to the University of Cape Town and surrounding areas. Parts of UCT’s Jagger library have burnt down, including its beautiful reading room. Manuscripts, theses and some of the Special Collection in the African Studies Library have been lost. 

This is a grievous loss, but especially so for those of us whose alma mater UCT is. The campus, with its historic buildings, sweeping mountain views and ivy-clad facades also occupies a special place in the life of a city that is both beautiful and complex. The university, Cape Town’s intellectual heart and itself a place of considerable complexity, is South Africa’s oldest university. As PEN South Africa put it so well in its Note of Support to UCT:

 “We grieve the loss of this space and the texts it held, but we know that rebuilding is and will be possible.” 

As with any tragedy, there have also been tales of heroic acts. Students resident at Smuts Hall, with their warden, Professor Kelly Chibale, made desperate attempts to douse the flames as they engulfed ivy, trees, brick and wood. These acts of solidarity and bravery should not be forgotten in the aftermath. 

In the same week we watched UCT burning, we also witnessed Charlotte Maxeke academic hospital burning. It left us with more tragic scenes and even more questions. Life can be hard in these parts. 

The burning of a library and the emotion it evokes also speaks to what makes a society what it is, what matters most to us and how we value knowledge as part of the society we want to build. What is it that should inform our common life? 

Some on social media used the platform to engage in some cheap sloganeering: “let it all burn!”, they said. It’s colonial knowledge, they cried from behind their keyboards and mobile phones. 

It’s easy to mistake social media for what is happening in the “real world”. But it is safe to say that the real world is far more complex and layered than the binary propositions social media encourages. In a sense tweets are often easy thinking contained in sound bites designed to offend or shock. Simultaneously though, social media provides some lens into society’s flashpoints. 

As Lesley Cowling and Carolyn Hamilton have written in their introduction to the excellent book they edited, entitled, Babel Unbound: Rage, Reason and Rethinking Public Life, “the old ways of mediating collective life — through public discussion of one kind or another — seem to be falling away, overtaken by a new order of public spectacle, combativeness, hate speech and even violence”.

They refer to the idea of the “public sphere” as espoused by Jurgen Habermas. His notion of “offentlichkeit” — “perhaps best described as ‘publicness’ — an enabling process of democracy, a space between the people and the state in which public opinion is formed”, is an interesting, if incomplete starting point. Habermas, Cowling and Hamilton go on to say, “later became a proponent of deliberative democracy, the idea that problems can be solved by ‘the better argument’ and that certain kinds of debate are crucial to the process of discussion”. Interestingly, the book goes on to theorise about the public sphere outside of the traditional European and American understanding of it. 

The fire, our commitment to knowledge and how we rebuild will be informed by how we view public life, the public sphere and how it is mediated. 

What we rely upon to understand public life, negotiate it, participate in it in a democracy is reliant on many things. As Carolyn Hamilton again reminds us in her chapter on “The archive and public life”, “In public discussions, archives and records — concerning everything from past genocides to the bases of claims to citizenship or the tracking of disease regimes — play a significant role in establishing what is understood as the truth about a matter.” But as she also points out, archives equally are a topic for heated exchange and “criticised for biases, omissions and inaccessibility, and for underwriting the views of those with power”. 

Therefore, what we seek to preserve is neither accidental nor neutral. When students at UCT set artwork alight during the #Feesmustfall protests, the question that was being asked related to what we preserve, how and why?

In other words too, what represents the modern-day university and why? It seems we would do well to think carefully about the linkages between #Feesemustfall protests and the broader debate about the public sphere; what and who informs it, especially as the university seeks to rebuild after the fire. It is, after all, a societal debate and not only the university’s. The university is the repository of this rich tapestry of knowledge on all our behalf.

So inadvertently the fire and the loss of so much precious materials in the Jagger Library and its Special Collections, will raise the questions: “Whose knowledge and why?”

What is a library other than to provide depth to life and help us find the answers to that which ails us now?

In this deeply contested space, the discussion and decision-making about what rises from the ashes will be challenging, yet has the potential for thoughtful exchange. Or so one hopes. Hashtags and social media platitudes will not assist us, neither will reductionist thinking designed to limit our understanding of the present and the past. A rebuilding of the library and the archives (where possible) will of necessity mean again delving into our painful past and not seeking to relegate what causes discomfort to the proverbial dustbin. 

Bricks and mortar can be replaced, but parts of the library collections have been irretrievably lost. It is over this that we lament publicly and in solidarity with UCT. For it all belongs to the rich panoply that makes us uniquely South African and uniquely of this place. Colonialism and apartheid are part of our past, the legacy of both haunt us today in myriad ways. We should not celebrate and dance on the ashes of what has burnt because they describe to us how we have come to be who and what we are as individuals and as a country. 

All of it has significance. The very understanding of the university embraces all knowledge leading to a greater understanding of the world as it is, thereby helping us to create the world as we want it to be. 

What rises from the ash at UCT should be richer and even more embracing of the past rather than involving the limited thinking and the cheap politics of now, which some would have us espouse.

A lot happens in South Africa in any given week. We had not yet finished lamenting the loss of public knowledge when Norma Mngoma’s testimony at the Zondo Commission grabbed our attention. But in a sense, the two events were not as disconnected as they seemed. 

For standing in sharp contrast to the depth of knowledge and understanding of the university, is the crass politics of capture. 

What is a library other than to provide depth to life and help us find the answers to that which ails us now?

Norma Mngoma’s appearance spoke volumes about the kind of society we have become and the values of those who hold power. 

Mngoma presented a laundry list of ways in which her estranged husband, former minister Malusi Gigaba, had been captured by the Gupta family. It involved, inter alia, much shopping for branded clothes, handbags and a wedding of between R4-5-million which the couple seemed to accept with a perturbing insouciance. 

What it reveals (other than pure corruption) is a ruling class detached from reality, but also fundamentally empty; empty of knowledge in a world where cars, handbags, shopping trips to Dubai is all that really matters. It reveals an approach to life that is bereft of depth, with people content to wade in the shallows. 

The political class has betrayed the promise in exchange for shiny objects. 

It is perhaps the single failure of post-apartheid society that we have prized this crass materialism above the pursuit of knowledge and the values which would make our society a more humane one.

In this context, rebuilding a library is a veritable act of defiance. DM

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All Comments 12

  • Very insightful story and most enjoyable reading. The comparison between the world of shallow modern politicians and the richness provided in the stillness of a library’s reading room surrounded by well- written arguments about the intricacies of human live is striking.

  • “a ruling class detached from reality, but also fundamentally empty; empty of knowledge in a world where cars, handbags, shopping trips to Dubai is all that really matters.”Unfortunately, this shallowness is prevalent in many parts of our society.

  • Being exposed to the common sense and insight of this writer is one of my small pleasures in this godforsaken pit latrine our country has become.

  • Here we have it in plain language: the pit latrine that our country has become in many instances thanks to a ruling class go wrong.

  • It seems like a time to re-read Faust and think again about its meanings. Thank you again and again, Judith for your deep thinking and clear writing.

  • What distinguishes us from other animals is our learning ability. Libraries provide the materials that fuel the learning from generation to generation.

  • Excellent article on all fronts – and a particularly rational viewpoint on how we (ie all the citizens of SA) should engage honestly with our history, good and bad, rather than try to re-write our history.

  • I find the fact that the fire occurred in the Jagger Library unforgivable.
    I my view the management of the University need to replace the management of the library with competent individuals who can preserve the materials that others have entrusted to the University.

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