A tale of Rhodes and his pine trees

It was entirely coincidental that the fire that began at the godforsaken Rhodes Memorial spread down the mountain to UCT and into the African Studies Library. Thousands upon thousands of pre-colonial and some colonial archives held in the library have been lost. A space for decolonial education and research has been decimated. All by a fire that started on the slope of a mountain covered in neatly preserved colonialism. 

At first, I was smug at the irony. After I’d heard that nobody had been seriously hurt, my lips tugged a smile at the burning of a monument that stood to honour a trash human who sought to destroy other people and their cultures. On the anniversary of the #RUReferenceList, noggal. I thought, let everything that man stood for burn. Let it all be razed to the ground. But then it spread. While my heart is filled with glee at the memorial being told to fuck right off by nature itself, we are now dealing with people – both the poor and students -, animals, and an entire body of knowledge being displaced or destroyed. 

Not to downplay the trauma from this, collections are being made. Good. Students are being evacuated. Good. Animal organisations are helping with homing, fostering, and getting resources to the ones who need them. Good. It’s incredibly important that we show and share messages of solidarity with the students, firefighters, and scholars of the university. 

We should also remember that the City of Cape Town and its DA leadership is anti-black and anti-poor and they will use this as an excuse to evict the poor and homeless from their already small and constrained spaces. The narrative of the fire being started by the homeless on the mountain is already spreading and even if it was, the City is absolutely to blame for failing to provide housing. To boot, the lack of action by the City and State on the climate crisis has resulted in the increasing temperatures and dryness of the city over the past years disproportionately affecting the poor and the homeless. A homeless person was arrested for starting the fire with the DA district security leader saying every fire is started by a human.

The humans who live on the mountain are now more homeless than they have ever been. Aside from not having roofs over their heads, they don’t have the forests in which to live. People use “Bergie” as a derogatory term, signifying people that belong on the mountain rather than belonging in the city. And that makes me think about belonging. We come from oral traditions which have been so damaged by colonialism and apartheid that these archives that have been destroyed held the rare and unimagined possibility of regaining our history and a decolonised education becoming the norm. 

UCT is 191 years old. The focal point is its hall that stands against the backdrop of Devil’s Peak and its steps cascade down towards the busy streets of Rondebosch. At the foot of these steps stands the remnants of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, which was removed in 2015. The base of it stands like a monolith before the hall, recently renamed after Sarah Baartman, a Khoi woman sold into slavery and exhibited as a curiosity in England in the late 18th Century. A powerful symbol in post-apartheid South Africa but a simple reference to a closed chapter of history. A safe symbol, one that doesn’t create controversy.

Rhodes, among other bizarre installations in South Africa, had planted himself a pine plantation. The beginning of the fire pealed a call of Rhodes falling, as if nature itself had demanded it. The area that hadn’t burned in over a hundred years and the memorial itself, surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of old pine trees standing tall in all their colonial legacy was engulfed in flames. 

The University of Cape Town, a politically fraught site from which people like apartheid leaders Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr and Andries Treurnicht graduated, has been the centre of the ideological battle for the decolonisation of education. From before Rhodes Must Fall in 2015 to now, UCT has been a battleground between the old guard vehemently defending a bloody and traumatic colonial history (with a lot of money behind them) and students who are fed up of learning about dead white guys that have no bearing on South African history and knowledge. The university, while a top institution nationally and internationally, is not-so-jokingly known as the University of Colonialism Town by people at other universities. 

Its attempts at finding a balance between its painful past and a future in which the university can say it’s on the right side of history included the African Studies Library, contained in a building that consisted of books and pamphlets that exceeded 85 000 items on African studies alone. The Jagger Reading Room was home to the research of so many people from within and outside of Africa who have been rewriting African history to reflect the lived experiences of those that colonial and western history previously ignored. And then came a fire.

It was as if Rhodes knew he was becoming obsolete and he called on his pine trees to destroy all that he hated.

Pine burns at high temperatures and ignites easily due to its volatile oils and easy kindling. Fynbos, which belongs in that area – while it does burn – does not burn like this. With the pine trees having made themselves at home on the slopes of the mountain, it became the perfect breeding ground for fires and allows it to travel unchecked. Coupled with Cape Town’s winds, it’s a deadly combination. It has now destroyed one of the most important structures in African history.

Rhodes certainly hasn’t fallen yet.