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UCT students, staff return to campus after devastating fire

The University of Cape Town (UCT) resumed its academic programme on Monday after a temporary halt because of the devastating Rhodes Memorial fire at the institution’s Rondebosch campus last week. 

For many students returning to campus, this will be the first time they will experience the devastation caused by the fire first hand. 

Flare-ups of smouldering vegetation hampered the initial return of students and staff last week, prompting UCT vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng to postpone reopening by a week. 

“It has taken time to inspect the buildings while areas were still smouldering … our first priority is to ensure the health and safety of everyone who needs to return to campus buildings,” Phakeng said in a statement.

She added that an independent, external technical team, together with UCT’s internal operational health and safety team, made an assessment on the air quality in identified buildings that were not damaged during the fire. 

Students who evacuated from on-campus residences because of the fire and were placed in alternative accommodation have returned. 

In an extensive joint effort between the UCT personnel, alumni, hotels and NGOs, 4 000 students were hosted elsewhere. They finally returned to their residences on Thursday 22 April. 

Lesedi Lale, deputy chairperson of the environmental wellness council and a resident at Kopano Residence on lower campus, told the Mail & Guardian on Sunday that, despite being back since last week, he is yet to visit parts of the campus severely damaged by the fire. 

“I can say I am not psychologically ready to see the damage, but I’m pretty sure during this coming week I’ll take a walk and actually see what damage was done on upper campus. But for now, I’m still … trying to digest the whole thing,” Lale said.

He said he was still getting used to the burned landscape that he could see from the window of his residence. 

It is understood that students from the upper-campus female residence, Fuller Hall — one of the first buildings erected on the campus in 1928 — and the male residence, Smuts Hall, are still in alternative accommodation; these residences are considered unsafe for occupation because of fire damage.

Lale felt fortunate to have been able to return to his residence and said he welcomed being back in his room, but thoughts of what could have been still haunt him.

“You know that sense of, ‘Finally, I’m back in my room. Everything is safe. I got everything back in my room, and everything is fine.’ It is just that feeling of, ‘Oh this almost happened’ — overthinking the whole situation.”

He added that things were calmer “compared to the past few, maybe five days”. “We’ve talked with other students and they are getting better. I’m actually ready to continue the [academic] journey I started on 15 March.”

UCT’s student affairs and student wellness service satellite medical service points are open for students who need health and counselling assistance. 

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a junior daily news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She was previously a freelance journalist and a broadcaster at Maroela Media and Smile90.4FM.

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