Cape Town Fires: Reflections from Keabetswe Zondi ‘17

South African Keabetswe Zondi graduated from ALA as part of the class of 2017. She is currently a student at the University of Cape Town’s Upper Campus pursuing a Bachelor of Social Science – majoring in Psychology.

In 2015, students across the country became conscientized by the task of rebuilding a country that has been torn apart by years of inequality. This led to decolonial movements in higher education like #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall. These ‘war cries’ were echoed for the years to come, and became entrenched in me as a personal philosophy and practice. So naturally, I began to seek emerging afro-centric ways of learning – which led me to commencing studies at African Leadership Academy in 2017, and thereafter at the University of Cape Town (the founding site of the #RhodesMustFall movement) in 2020. It was a full-circle experience for me when at my graduation from ALA in 2019, I introduced Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng as a guest speaker, who was then and still is the Vice Chancellor of UCT. 

Keabetswe Zondi ’17

Recalling my past years makes me reflect on the cycle of death and birth, since the outbreak of the Cape Town fire on Sunday 18th of April. We lost a few things to the fire: the Jagger Library (which housed special collections & African Studies literature), H.W. Pearson Building, as well as Smuts and Fuller Residence. Students and staff on campus had to evacuate the premises and – if they’ve been displaced – are now being sheltered in accommodations around Cape Town. The kindness of strangers, collaboration of community, and quick-thinking of UCTs leadership stepped in to lessen the effects of the fire for many. 

Being a bit of a distance away from campus, I was fortunate enough to not personally lose anything other than my wits. For years I had dreamed of rummaging through the archives of african literature – unlearning what I knew and relearning what I wish I did – in UCTs beautiful libraries. Just to come out and debate with my friends on the monumental Jammie-turned-Sarah-Baartman steps that have seen more revolutions than I could imagine. As much as this may not be a dream that materialises any time soon – as campus remains closed and the full extent of damage done is yet to be assessed – it doesn’t hurt to dream of better days. After all, I’ve been dreaming since 2015. 

I am overwhelmed by the community support that’s been offered and received in response to the fire. It reminds me so much of how ALA’s value of compassion lives on in regular, everyday people. I have spent the past few days recuperating in community, with some of my family and friends (including ALA alums at UCT). Together we’ve felt scared, felt grief, felt relieved (because our burn-out from consistent work-output is put at bay), felt confused, felt numb and felt hopeful. I choose to hold on to the feeling of hope because it enables me to contribute to future endeavours, rather than give up on past transgressions. 

Reminding us, and me, of the importance of transformation, Professor Phakeng wrote to the UCT community: “We cannot replace the treasures of scholarship we have lost, but we can create new treasures out of our own scholarship. In the same way, each of us can rebuild our own sense of purpose out of this tragedy.”

We need to rebuild. We owe it to our history and future to be in the business of making something better. It’s not a task of a singular moment, but many moments of constantly asking ourselves what our contributions to the greater good can be. 

If anyone else would like to donate to rebuilding UCT, please check out the resource below, as cited at the bottom of the official UCT news site: http://www.alumni.uct.ac.za/giving/ways-to-give