South Africa and the sad story of Timbuktu

Saving Africa’s Timbuktu heritage

The recent announcement of the closure of the Timbuktu trust fund founded by former president Thabo Mbeki proved me and many others wrong about him.

Some years ago I told a good friend it is impossible to replace the Mbeki presidency with something worse.  

My despondency at the time sprang from an assurance by Mr Mbeki that his quiet diplomacy policy towards Zimbabwe was working and that Robert Mugabe would stop the persecution of his opposition. It was on his return from one of his many appeasement trips to Zimbabwe.   

At the same time investigative journalists, travelling in great secrecy in Zimbabwe, were reporting horrifying stories of widespread regime atrocities, intimidation and harassment of the opposition.

I have regretted this remark ever since the man from Nkandla replaced Mbeki and my friend often reminds me of it, like when President Zuma tried to justify the monumental blunder of sacking Finance Minister Nene.

It is, however, difficult to decide what is more tragic – in the longer run – the Nene blunder or the announcement on the Timbuktu trust fund. One of ex-president Mbeki’s proudest legacies and a project all South Africans should be proud of, it was abruptly terminated by the Zuma administration

Through the trust South Africa channelled aid to the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project aimed at the preservation of priceless documents and artefacts in Timbuktu.

In 2001 President Mbeki travelled to Timbuktu in Mali, a world heritage site located on the edge of the Sahara Desert.

During its heyday, while Europe was trapped in the Dark Middle Ages, Timbuktu flourished as a renowned centre for trade and research. Artists, academics, politicians, religious scholars and poets converged on Timbuktu and the city’s contribution to the history of humanity was remarkable.

Hosted by the then Malian president, Oumar Konaré, Mbeki was captivated by the ancient manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Research Institute, but concerned that the institute lacked suitable preservation facilities.

Preserving a proud African legacy

Incorporating the legacy of Timbuktu into his vision of an African Renaissance Mr Mbeki initiated a multi-million rand trust fund. The SA government and the business community jointly contributed over R60 million to the preservation of Timbuktu’s historically important ancient manuscripts.

Experts were assembled and sent to construct suitable state-of-the-art archive facilities, train Malians in restoration and preservation techniques. Plans were also put in place to breathe life into the institute as a centre of education on African history.

Sadly, this initiative now lies in ruins, trampled into the sands of the Sahara, courtesy of the indifference of the Zuma government.

When, in 2009, the official opening of the upgraded facilities took place, Mbeki had already been ousted as president and downgraded to a mere spectator while interim president Kgalema Motlanthe made the official South African speech.

It turned out that 2009 was also the last time financial instalments were made to the trust fund. Today, there is little trace left of the project in either of the two ministries – Science and Technology and Arts and Culture – originally involved in the project. Apparently nobody wants to take responsibility or wants to be associated with what is supposed to be a really worthy cause. 

Shamil Jeppie, University of Cape Town historian and the project director of Mbeki’s initiative, in his reaction to the closure of the trust lamented: “After Mbeki's removal, the relevant ministries made as if there never was such a project.”

What could have been

Graham Dominy, former head of the National Archives and closely involved with the project, is absolutely correct when he refers to what could have been: “We talked excitedly of how the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project demonstrated a far more civilised vision than the prevailing Western discourse on the War on Terror and the Conflict of Civilisations,” he said.  

To make matters worse, Islamist insurgents occupied Timbuktu during the 2012-13 political crises in Mali when the country erupted into violent civil strife, ironically eventually quelled by foreign intervention from France.

As news surfaced that the fundamentalists were destroying irreplaceable manuscripts, ransacking a world heritage site (including the South African improvements), the South African government did not lift a finger.

It was left to former colonial master, France, to come to the rescue and save the city and its invaluable treasures from further destruction. 

It is an indictment of the Zuma administration and indicative of a lack of interest and pride in Africa’s history and heritage.  

Vashna Jagarnath, historian at Rhodes University, sums up the disgust generated by the trust’s closure when she wrote: “The loss of this trust is not just a personal blow to the former President. It is a sad day for all of us, from Johannesburg to Bamako. The closure of the Timbuktu Trust confirms, once again, what we already know about Zuma: He has no emancipatory vision and no interest in building or preserving anything of social value.”

Confirming the disinterest of the current political leadership, former ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga chipped in that the African Union has to take charge of preserving the Timbuktu manuscripts.

Motshekga might be correct in arguing that African governments, and not only the South African government, should support the preservation of Timbuktu, but the manner in which South Africa is abdicating its support is embarrassing – leaving the fate of this African world heritage site is once again in the hands of the old colonial powers.

Once again France, Germany, Norway, Luxemburg and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) had to step in as custodians.

Ironically, in 2009 Motlanthe said: “Today, as a result of preservation by plunder, museums in Europe are the custodians of some of the significant antiquities of Africa.”

Due to either unwillingness or disinterest in Africa to protect and preserve its own past, in the words of one journalist, the reality is that whether by plunder or policy, preservation of Timbuktu’s manuscripts now rests squarely in First World hands.

It is tragic that while there is no lack of motivation and enthusiasm to wipe out Cecil John Rhodes – who in my view deserves little more than a footnote in books on Africa’s history – there is apparently no motivation and enthusiasm for the preservation of one of Africa’s biggest treasures.

by Garth Cilliers

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