‘In times of crisis there is always a silver lining.’ This is the message of Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT), as she reflects on the wildfire, also known as the Rhodes Memorial fire, that caused devastation on their campus in April.
The fire that ripped through the campus and damaged some buildings while destroying others, has opened some important discussion points; one of them the decolonisation of UCT.
‘Three buildings will need to be completely rebuilt – the Jagger Library Reading Room, and the administrative buildings Cadbol House and La Grotta,’ explains Phakeng. But questions arise regarding these buildings: Should they be built like-for-like in remembrance of a time when Africa was under colonial rule, or should they be reimagined to resemble something more futuristic, perhaps with an African flair?
However, reimagining these buildings has elicited another decolonisation issue. UCT has to consult the Rhodes Trustees to get permission to change any of the old buildings on the upper campus that have the classic university design.
‘So, now is the ideal opportunity to enter those long-overdue discussions with the Rhodes Trustees as part of UCT’s decolonisation agenda,’ explains Phakeng. This agenda started after the #RhodesMustFall protests back in 2015. Initially, the protest campaigned for the removal of the statue commemorating Cecil Rhodes, but eventually led to a wider, ongoing movement to decolonise education across South Africa – an aim with which UCT is on board.
‘Talking about decolonisation and what it means can be the starting point of something new: a fresh makeover for the university that doesn’t point back to our past, but rather to our future and where UCT and our country are going. If it weren’t for the fire, would these discussions ever have happened?’ she asks.
The reconstruction of these buildings will take about two years, but it will all depend on the insurance pay out that UCT will receive. ‘If we don’t receive sufficient funds, we will have to raise our own funds, which can take a long time.’
Fundraising is already a challenge for the university, especially after Covid-19. With a declining budget owing to reduced subsidies from government, it is becoming increasingly challenging to raise financial aid for disadvantaged students. This year, UCT has mainly been challenged with finding funds for NSFAS students, as well as for post-graduate diploma students who do not get NSFAS funding.
If students qualifying for NSFAS support are in the system, but government can’t fund them, it becomes the university’s problem to find money for them. Phakeng says that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find donors as the Covid-19 pandemic has affected businesses worldwide.
‘This year 41.5 per cent of our new undergraduate students are the first in their family to attend university, and 40 per cent of our students have registered for post-graduate qualifications. As the leading university on the continent, we cannot afford not to cater to these students.
‘Should we change our focus to raising funds for these buildings rather than raising funds for these students, then there is a real risk that our students will get the short end of the stick, which is something that we would like to avoid.’
In the meantime, while UCT waits for the forensic investigation to conclude, and the insurance claims to be processed, they are turning their attention to what can be done now to ensure that the academic year is not further disrupted.
‘Our first priority is to repair two student residence buildings that have been damaged: Fuller and Smuts Houses. These repairs will be completed by end July. The biological sciences building – the HW Pearson building – will be reopened in stages from June.’
They are also working though materials that have been salvaged, while determining which historic collections have been lost.
It was certainly a tragedy when irreplaceable and historic scholarly collections, kept in the Jagger Library Reading Room, went up in flames. Collections that were destroyed include the vast majority of the African Studies Published Print Collection, the entire African Studies Film Collection on DVD, and manuscripts and archives kept in the Reading Room for processing or digitisation or awaiting transfer after being digitised. Although this is a great loss to the university, Phakeng believes it has also given rise to other opportunities.
‘Instead of just focusing on what we have lost, now is an opportunity to look at what is left, but more importantly, at what we can gain. How can we grow our collections? For example, why don’t we have collections of contemporary African culture? Although the historic collections are certainly important, current collections can be just as meaningful, because it reflects the time in which we are living right now.
Phakeng is grateful that, at least, all the collections kept in the basement of the Jagger Library Reading Room were saved, in particular the Bleek and Lloyd collection, which are recognised as a national treasure and a UN Memory of the World Site.
‘I have not had the time before to go through the Bleek and Lloyd collections,’ explains Phakeng, ‘but after the fire, I felt compelled to read them.’
What Phakeng uncovered in these 150-year-old recollections of the San people, she describes as prophetic.
Phakeng interprets what she read: ‘The /xam people talked about dreaming backwards, and what this dreaming backwards meant, is that you can dream of a traumatic past, and then, through discussion and action remake the present. It is similar to what Western culture would call post-traumatic growth – the idea that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity, can often see positive growth afterwards. This is the message that I am taking away from the fire – that we can build back better.’
It fits in really well with their Vision 2030. ‘This vision is centred around three pillars: excellence, transformation and sustainability.
‘We are an excellent university, but excellence without transformation has a tendency to be exclusionary. Transformation balances excellence and makes it useful to its surroundings. It helps us to determine how we can be a university in our community that is useful to the community, and not just excellent for ourselves. We want to be the best for Africa and not just the best in Africa.
‘If we can achieve this, we will also have sustainability – our excellence will be sustainable, and we will be sustainable financially, socially and environmentally. If we become outstanding in that way, we will attract even more favour from around the world.’
UCT might have partly burnt down, but there is no doubt that it will rise from the ashes like a phoenix and fly towards a future that they envision not just for themselves, but also for our country and Africa as a whole – a fairer and more just society for all, which can only be achieved through excellence, transformation and sustainability.