On Sunday, 18 April, a small fire on Table Mountain was whipped by high winds into an enormous blaze. It spread quickly to the nearby campus of the University of Cape Town, where embers set alight the roof of the African Studies Library and burned to ashes a significant amount of the world’s rarest and most valuable collections of African media. You could watch it all pretty much live: the family WhatsApp group beaming out the incineration of what you had foolishly believed to be enduring. While the full extent of the damage is still not known, there has been a grim inventory of losses: the Jagger Reading Room was gutted, along with 70,000 books, a collection of government records from across the continent, and the entire African Studies Film Collection.
From my desk I can see the Lakanal flats which caught fire so catastrophically on Friday. I've looked at the modernist slab block, end-on, almost every working day for the last three years. On Friday afternoon there was thin grey smoke coming from one window. As I went out into the street a woman from across the road told me that she'd just called the fire brigade. While we watched the smoke turned black and then with a muffled sound, somewhere between a thud and a roar, flames burst out of the front. Glass and burning debris started to shower down. After twenty minutes or so I left. I wasn't doing any good. People were running towards the estate but by this time the police had tape up and were holding them back. Lakanal, named after Joseph Lakanal (1762-1845), the French revolutionary educationalist, is part of the Sceaux Gardens estate.