EXCLUSIVE: Fires plague several of Cape Town’s iconic landmarks
Series of blazes engulf Parliament, Tutu’s church, Rhodes Memorial and UCT’s Jagger Library
NOTE TO READERS: By the time you read this, I will be in AIRPLANE MODE on a trip the equivalent of half the circumference of the Earth. There will be more to come once I’ve landed and recovered from jet lag.
A series of fires over the past 10 months has caused extensive damage to several world-renowned locales in the greater Cape Town area, leaving considerable damage and a bruised city pondering how to prevent further conflagrations.
The most recent fire, just a week ago, damaged the St. George’s Cathedral, home for many years to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose funeral service was held there in December.
Just a couple of hundred yards away, the historic national parliament complex suffered extensive damage Jan. 2 when a blaze tore through its National Assembly building.
Last year, a raging wildfire burned down a historic restaurant structure at Rhodes Memorial, the iconic Mostert’s Mill and damaged the Jagger Library at the University of Cape Town.
Some suspects have been arrested in connection with some of the fires; none has been convicted. Observers and officials in interviews conducted last week provided searing accounts of the events and their implications.
The world watched transfixed as a large fire tore through South Africa’s parliament building in Cape Town on Jan. 2, causing the roof of one structure to collapse and gutting the chamber of the National Assembly.
On the spot, real-time coverage like this CNN report provided viewers a front-row seat as the flames shot out the top of one building (mid-frame in image above) with smoke rising into the air and ash falling on the neighborhood.
The fire and its aftermath received global media coverage and has been widely documented elsewhere.
How I got the photograph above, however, is an entirely different story. (You’ll note: it’s copyrighted – for a reason.)
I had just finished my interview at St. George’s Cathedral (see below) on Feb. 7 and walked the one block to Parliament Street, turned right – and was immediately confronted by an impenetrable security fence manned by two burly guards, a hundred yards or more from the building entrance.
I waved my press pass and reporter’s notebook, and explained my situation to no avail. They would not allow me beyond the perimeter, but they did make a friendly recommendation: Proceed away from the building, a couple of hundred feet down Parliament Street, turn right, and enter a 13-story building. Get up high enough, and I’d get my picture.
Not so fast, said the security guard in the lobby of the high-rise.
The public was admitted only to the third floor retail establishments; above were residences, all requiring a key fob to activate the elevator.
Adrenaline was pumping through my body as I tried the press-pass and notebook trick with no success. Eventually the guard pointed to a sign on the wall, and instructed me to call his boss at the posted phone number. Five minutes later she was on my speaker phone telling the guard to “take him up.”
Sometimes, it’s advisable to be careful what you wish for.
As we exited on the 13th floor, the guard said: “Not there yet. Come with me.”
He led me up a tiny staircase, through a maintenance room and – out into the bright sunlight. I gasped! We were on the “14th floor,” the roof of the building. It was flat; there were no guardrails.
Clutching tightly to the top of the elevator shaft (the only handhold available), controlling my acrophobia, camera in my right hand, I could barely breathe as I saw the image in my viewfinder.
It took mere seconds to snap a dozen pictures. “Let’s go!” I yelled at the guard, beating a hasty retreat into the elevator shaft.
Enjoy the view!
The most recent fire broke out in the early hours of Sunday morning Feb. 6 at the iconic St. George’s Cathedral in central Cape Town.
You can view a breaking news report from the local television channel eNCA at this link Fire at St George's Cathedral, basement, crypt damaged
It details the quick response of firefighters, citizens and neighbors that undoubtedly saved the structure and its contents from serious damage.
A suspect seen on security video was arrested and charged with arson. After a court appearance on Feb. 9, he was referred for a mental health assessment.
The historic St. George’s Cathedral, which bills itself as “The People’s Cathedral” for its role in the resistance against apartheid, is the oldest cathedral in Southern Africa and the mother church of the Anglican Diocese of Cape Town.
The gothic structure, seen above, is a classic cruciform building, with a courtyard garden, which includes a Labyrinth. The administrative offices of the Cathedral are housed in cloisters facing the courtyard.
“The original St George's Church had been built in the style of St. Pancras Church in London, featuring six stone pillars whose places are marked today by oak trees on the Cathedral steps. It opened at Christmas 1834, and was made a cathedral in 1847.”
In an interview inside the cathedral’s administrative offices on Wednesday, Feb. 9, Operations Manager Franklin James said officials were first notified of the blaze at about 0200 on Feb. 6.
“Officials from the Central City Improvement District (CCID) were notified and they spotted the fire and rushed to the scene,” James said.
Additionally, church neighbors at the Taj Hotel on the opposite side of Wales Street (from where the image of the exterior of the building above was taken) provided security officials with a fire extinguisher with which they could douse the flames, James said.
“We are so grateful to them,” he said.
The fire was started in the basement just adjacent to the main steps of the cathedral, James explained. “It's below the cathedral. It has a small, little window closed with a metal security bar. [The fire] was started there,” he said.
Officials were still making an assessment of the damage mid-week, but there was “not significant material damage inside the cathedral,” James said. “Nothing at all. We're very grateful for that.
“We're [also] grateful for the vigilance of officials, our neighbors, the CCID, the Taj Hotel, and the South African Police Service, who immediately dispatched quite senior personnel to assist us from the early morning hours right through to daybreak,” James added.
Perched on the lower slopes of Devil’s Peak, the Rhodes Memorial has seen more than its share of controversy in recent years.
Cecil John Rhodes, born in England in 1853, was an entrepreneur, mining magnate, philanthropist … and unapologetic imperialist!
A quick take on the controversial historic figure, the debate about his legacy and the memorial can be found at Cecil John Rhodes: Five fast facts about the controversial imperialist where we learn: Cecil John Rhodes is a name that has become synonymous with “hate” over the past few years. Be it the hashtag #RhodesMustFall or the physical removal of a statue, most South Africans have no love in their hearts when it comes to the man.”
The larger-than-life statue of Rhodes is framed by a classic Greek temple-like structure and fronted by a massive staircase with 49 steps (one for each year of Rhodes's life) leading from a semi-circular terrace up to a rectangular U-shaped monument formed of pillars. The memorial is built of Cape granite quarried on Table Mountain.
On April 18, 2021, a rapidly spreading grass fire engulfed the area surrounding Rhodes Memorial, the intense heat causing the iconic Mostert’s Mill below to spontaneously burst into flames and damaging the historic Jagger Library at the University of Cape Town (see below).
A breaking-news video of the fires from South Africa’s Sunday Times can be seen at In the heart of the runaway Rhodes Memorial fire with hikers, joggers and firefighters where we learn: “SANParks’ Table Mountain National Park urged all hikers within the Newlands and Rhodes Memorial area to urgently evacuate the area and move any cars parked there.
“The fire is currently out of control and we request that all onlookers please refrain from entering the area and keep the area clear for emergency vehicles to pass,” it said in a statement.
The only structure at Rhodes Memorial damaged in the blaze was an historic restaurant behind the statue, seen in the image above. Today, all that remains are the foundations and stone chimneys. Weeds have grown to waist level in the ruins. No attempts at remediation or reconstruction are evident.
Volunteer firefighter, environmentalist and passionate conservationist Werner Jonkers was hundreds of miles away up the east coast of South Africa when a friend showed him pictures of a fire on Table Mountain.
“I laughed and said, ‘The mountain is always on fire. And I'm serious,’ ” he told me as we sat on a granite ledge behind the statue on Feb. 9.
However, “the moment he mentioned the words ‘Rhodes Memorial,’ my heart just sank because I know the area quite well,” Jonkers said with serious understatement.
“When I saw the clip of the hills and the restaurant on fire, I literally just grabbed all my gear and told the boss … ‘I'm going, come hell or high waters!’ And left,” he said.
By the time he reached Cape Town about nine hours later, the fire was still burning.
“Luckily, by the grace of God, the wind had shifted. The fire literally stopped just under a kilometer from our house.”
Indeed, for Jonkers it was both professional and personal. He and his partner, Chamell, live in a house on the mountainside with their son.
“I was devastated,” Jonkers said. “I was worried about her [Chamell]. Luckily our son was with his grandma. I was more concerned about her and the dogs.”
After he arrived home, Jonkers heard on the emergency radio frequency a call for help for some firefighters trapped behind fallen trees on the road.
“I literally just jumped up, grabbed a fire helmet, my chainsaw and a headlight and started cutting fallen trees out of the way,” he said.
The fire started from the lower area of the mountainside, Jonkers explained, “which is a grass plain and, obviously, it's dry grass.
“Grass fires, compared to ‘normal’ what we call bush or veld fires (shrubs) – grass fires [move] a lot faster,” he added.
“[Bush] fires move at a walking pace whereas grass fires [spread] at a jogging pace.”
That’s quite a significant difference if you are running for your life away from the flames.
Explaining the mystery of why Mostert’s Mill – across a four lane freeway from where the fire burned most intensely – was destroyed, Jonkers said that bush fires generate huge amounts of radiant heat. If the air temperature is high and moisture content low, with a high wind, the conditions are ripe for spontaneous combustion.
“Once the fire exceeds 180 to 200 degrees Celsius, anything that's made out of lumber ignites by itself,” Jonkers explained. The mill structure, hundreds of feet away from the flames, just went, Poof!
Jonkers, who’s now under contract to remove dead and problematic vegetation from the slopes surrounding Rhodes Memorial, is philosophical and practical about the future.
“I would love to have the historical vegetation restored,” he says. “Yes, the pines are nice to have but the problem [is that] pines belong in a plantation. They don't belong near houses. They don't belong on slopes near cities because once they burn, they burn very fast.”
He also wants the restaurant rebuilt. “Yes, because it's iconic to the area. It was the place where I spent my Sundays, so I would love to have it back.”
The same day as the Rhodes Memorial fire, the blaze spread to the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus nearby, burning the historic Jagger Library and forcing the evacuation of 4,000 students.
You can see the breaking news in the April 19 Guardian report Cape Town fires: police investigate causes after library damaged
Here we learn that “local authorities said they were investigating the causes of the fires amid concern that arsonists may have been responsible for at least one.”
In an exclusive telephone interview late Friday, Feb. 11, the UCT Director of Libraries Ujala Satgoor explained that the interior of Jagger Library has been completely cleaned up and stabilized since the April fire.
“The roof has been replaced so no further damage [can occur],” she said. “The building is still upright because we have massive pillars inside – without them the building would have collapsed because of the intensity of the heat and gutting of the interior.”
The library had become internationally recognized for its special collections, Satgoor explained, seeking to differentiate the fire’s effect on the contents of the building from the structural damage.
“The African Studies Reading Room in the basement – home to the African Studies Collection – did not survive,” she said. “The basement was inundated by water. Also mostly lost, was a unique collection of African films – some 3,000 titles – showing the development of African cinema.
“Luckily, some were in VHS format and we have [a consultant] on site assisting with recovery efforts,” Satgoor said. “We may be able to make some copies [of the VHS tapes].”
She added that a wide-ranging consultative process is currently underway to “reconceptualize” the library (it dates from the 1930s) for the modern, digital era.
“The library will still host a collection that represents African history and identity, and will become a place of creative expression,” she said.
To supplement an insurance claim being finalized to cover the structural damage, the university has launched a fundraising campaign to finance replacement of the lost collections.
“In terms of what was lost, the cost could range from 50 million to 100 million South African Rand ($3 to $7 million USD),” Satgoor said. Regrettably, much of the material is irreplaceable at any cost.
To make a donation, click here to visit Jagger Library support and tributes page, and be generous.
Cape Town has seen more than its fair share of attention grabbing fires in the past 10 months. Historical structures have been engulfed by flames and seriously damaged. In some instances, the contents of the buildings – sometimes irreplaceable – have been lost forever.
The series of events has raised many unanswered questions for local residents, officials and the public. Will the arsonists – if it’s proved people deliberately set the fires – be bought to justice? What will be the cost of reconstruction? Who will pay for it? (The parliament building reportedly was not covered by fire insurance.)
Meanwhile, the investigations continue. It’s likely to take several years for all the outstanding issues to be resolved. Hopefully, measures will be implemented to rebuild and renew damaged structures, and minimize future conflagrations.
Thanks for reading In the (K)now! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.