/ 11 May 2024

Johannesburg Heritage Foundation warns of legal action over continued closure of city library

Jo'burg City Library Revival
The library is located in the heart of Johannesburg and houses more than 1.5 million books, as well as special collections.

The Johannesburg Heritage Foundation (JHF) says it will take legal action against the city council and the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) if its calls to re-open the metro’s main public library, which was closed four years ago, are not heeded. 

The foundation also plans to hold a protest over the issue on 18 May. 

The library closed its doors to the public in March 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and then announced in May 2021 that it would remain closed indefinitely after a preliminary status report showed that it had major structural problems, including a leaking roof.

The library is located in the heart of Johannesburg and houses more than 1.5 million books, as well as special collections such as the Africana in the Harold Strange Collection of African Studies, the Michaelis art collection, the performing arts collection, the newspaper and picture collection, and the children’s book collection. 

It also contains 140 computer workstations with free wifi. 

JHF founder Flo Bird told the Mail & Guardian that she personally had, since September 2022, been calling for the resumption of services at the library.

“The Johannesburg Heritage Foundation took the matter up in September 2023, trying first to work with the authorities to work on a phased re-opening,” Bird said.

“When scaffolding was recently erected with no message to our support group we realised that co-operation wasn’t working. That’s when we decided we had no choice but to mount a public protest.”

Bird said the foundation had received a report commissioned by the Johannesburg Development Agency from a site visit undertaken by MAP AFRICA Engineers in March 2024, which found that the building was structurally sound. 

City of Johannesburg spokesperson Nthatisi Modingoane said the council was aware of concerns about the closure of the library, but reiterated that it was necessary to ensure the safety of both staff and library users. 

“It is important to note that to open the library to the public, all statutory compliance matters pertaining to the Emergency Management Services by-laws and the National Building Regulations must be completed and certified as such before the building can be deemed safe for occupation and use,” Modingoane said.

The JHF said in a statement that the estimated date of re-opening was said to be sometime during the 2025 financial year, with the cost of repairs expected to exceed R100 million.

Bird said the library is not a luxury, but an essential facility. 

“In a country with appalling literacy rates and rife with poverty this facility is free.  It is nonsense to regard it as a luxury. There should be the same effort to get it back into use as there is when water or electricity is turned off.”

The JHF only expressed concerns about the essential fire-suppression system in the library, which was installed in 2012, but has not yet been commissioned. 

“This should be done as a matter of extreme urgency and should only take a few months to complete, after which the library can safely be re-opened to the public,” it said in its statement, adding that although a section of the roof leaks, it is not of immediate safety risk to library users. 

Bird said “The librarians and supporting staff are working in the building again so I assume the JDA  and facilities management have decided it is safe.”

Modingoane said the council was aware of the planned protest — which the foundation says is to raise awareness about the importance of a free, public facility — but reiterated that the library still needs more repair work. 

“Extensive work still needs to be undertaken for the building to be compliant with safety regulations, which will be implemented through a multi-year budget allocation,” he said.

The city has made provision for people to use library resources through the link  [email protected]