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Sunday, May 9, 2021

An Apparent Embrace of North Africa’s Desert Skeleton

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PRETORIA, South Africa — A massive blaze that authorities say has burned more than 940,000 acres of scrubland and drained at least 42 streams was 80 percent contained on Monday night, according to officials. The fire was centered in the area known as Lower Mpendwa in the Northern Cape province. It is said to have killed at least 33 people and destroyed 1,400 homes. The cause is not yet known.

The fire dealt a hard blow to the nation’s newly launched archive effort. When President Cyril Ramaphosa and Cabinet ministers visited Lower Mpendwa, they called for the reconstruction of the 7,000 households that have been affected by the fire.

“They lived in shacks. Now we have to rebuild them so that they can live in a better house,” said Prof. Mzwandile Ndebele, of the University of Pretoria, who is leading the research project. “These houses could be rebuilt in any country in the world.”

The project began with ground level records of 27 census districts between 1913 and 1955, but research was then stalled, partly because of insufficient funding, and it has not resumed. In December, officials said, they hoped to receive funding from the government to resume the project. But Monday’s fire just knocked down that hope. “It is disappointing that this country doesn’t have a great record of preserving history,” Dr. Ndebele said.

The fire burned much of South Africa’s history, as described in records dating back to the early 20th century, to catalog the effects of apartheid on lives and local communities. The fire burned sections of these records, at the same time destroying much of the water supplies that fed these records, which in turn created a large hole in the records. The fires also destroyed the bulk of the historic journal archives at the National Library of South Africa, until another fire this past winter put those issues back on track.

Dr. Ndebele will try to transfer the records that survived to other parts of the library and asked staff members to help collect them in a “triage” system.

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