Not so long ago, the people of Cape Town rallied together to save their livelihoods and themselves from a severe drought followed by an international pandemic. Now, nature has called on them to renew this resilience once again.
On 18 April 2021, a fire started on the slopes of Table Mountain, stirring the native fynbos into a roaring blaze that soon raged out of control.
One can barely begin to imagine how Capetonians felt watching their beloved mountain and it’s diverse, delicate fynbos ravaged by all-consuming flames. Small comfort is the fact that fynbos relies on infrequent fires to rejuvenate and restore its delicate foliage and brilliant blooms, usually burning low and slow.
This time the fire advanced rapidly into the leafy suburbs of Rosebank, Mowbray, and Rondebosch, burning fast and high, fueled by the alien pine trees on the mountain slopes. Despite firefighters’ valiant efforts, the blaze continued unabated, decimating a restaurant at the Rhodes Memorial, and making its way furiously toward the iconic University of Cape Town.
These historic, architecturally breath-taking buildings decked in ancient ivy, have long stood as a testament to some of the finest university education available. Now, these grand structures stood proud, although helpless, in the wake of the all-consuming flames.
While the university acted fast to evacuate students and faculty members, the fire roared onwards toward the university’s library, a stronghold of centuries of history recorded in priceless documents.
Although fire protection measures saved the main library from destruction, the Jagger Library Reading room containing over 85 000 books and other historical treasures succumbed to the flames. Many more priceless documents suffered extensive water damage due to intensive measures to quell the flames.
How Did Capetonians Respond to the Loss of Their History?
The city reeled in shock at this double decimation of the things they hold dear. The university was, and remains, the pride and joy of the city’s residents.
At first, shock and sadness prevailed at these devastating losses, but it didn’t take long for the citizens of Cape Town to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start looking towards a brighter future. In typical Capetonian spirit they worked together to provide food, shelter, and supplies to those displaced by the fire.
In place of devastation and loss, a new kind of beauty emerged as a fitting tribute to the massive losses sustained. One of compassion, kindness, and companionship in the face of torment.
Without denying the devastating losses incurred, the Executive Director of Libraries, Ujala Satgoor, went on air to encourage the people of Cape Town and highlight those items which had made it through the fire and water damage.
She assured the public that she was looking for ways to rise above the overwhelming loss and rebuild. Her interview was a breath of hope in the aftermath of the havoc caused by the fires.
UCT vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng expressed a profound sense of sorrow at the loss of the Jagger Reading Room but reiterated that the University would rebuild, not only by restoring the damaged buildings, but by building its own history via their own scholastic efforts.
She describes the process as a team effort, a chance for everyone to renew their sense of purpose in the wake of this tragedy.
With leadership such as this, it’s no wonder that it’s ‘business as usual’ in Cape Town as local folk return to their studies, industries, and homes ready to pick up the pieces and start again.
Cape Town more than fulfils the definition of resilience, which is, ‘the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems in a city to survive, adapt and thrive no matter what kind of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.’
It’s hardly surprising that the city was selected as one of the 100 Resilient Cities network, committed to building urban resilience.
There’s no doubting Cape Town will rise from the ashes, like the fynbos, stronger and even better than before.
So, if you’re planning a trip to Cape Town soon, don’t let a few flames (or a pandemic) put you off. The city’s up and running and ready to welcome you as it always has. Get in touch and let’s start planning.