Today, 1 March 2016, the International Criminal Court (ICC) will consider charges against Ahmad al-Faqi al Mahdi, a member of the violent and militant Islamic sect, Ansar Dine, operating in the Sahara and Sahel regions of West Africa.

What is unique about this case is that al-Faqi is charged with the destruction of a global cultural heritage, namely, the mosques and cultural artefacts of Timbuktu, a World Heritage site. This is the first time such a case has been heard by the ICC. (While government voices have recently criticised the ICC for its apparent partiality in focusing on African cases to the exclusion of cases in Europe or North America, South Africa was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the ICC, with its promise of some semblance of over-arching justice.)

Under President Thabo Mbeki, South Africa was closely involved with the protection of this World Heritage site and with the preservation of Timbuktu’s magnificent collection of ancient Islamic manuscripts. He visited Mali in November 2001, and was taken to the desert city of Timbuktu by President Alpha Konare, where he was shown the ancient manuscripts in the Ahmed Baba Research Centre (French acronym IHERI-AB). 

To say that he was inspired would be an understatement—his remarks in the visitor’s book were lyrical. When he returned to South Africa, he instructed the Department of Arts and Culture (then still twinned with Science and Technology) to investigate immediately how South Africa could assist with the preservation of the manuscripts. He had found a project to give substance to his idea of an African Renaissance, a vision that resonated not only in South Africa, but across the continent

An inter-ministerial committee was formed, with Minister Essop Pahad cracking the whip, and with the Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture, Ntombazana Botha, overseeing the work of the National Archives. Mbeki arranged for the project to be adopted as NEPAD's first cultural project (NEPAD, not heard of much these days, was the New Partnership for African Development). The South Africa-Mali Project: Timbuktu Manuscripts was intended to inspire and unite South Africans in support of a cultural project in one of the most remote cities in the world. Mbeki was fascinated by the manuscripts, as they provided incontrovertible evidence that Africans had a history of literacy and scholarship quite independent of that introduced by European colonialists. His fascination rubbed off on his people and stimulated a remarkable and positive engagement.

The background: Timbuktu, “The Mysterious”, is an ancient mud-walled city a few kilometres to the north of the Niger River. It is the first place that has constant water for camel caravans coming south across the Sahara desert. Goods can also be trans-shipped to boats for further travel along the Niger. It was established in the 12th Century. One tale on the origins of the name ascribe it to a woman: The widow, “Buktu”, who was the guardian of the well, or “Tim”. It became a centre of learning, as scholars followed trade from the Maghreb to the southern terminus of the trans-Saharan trade. Some of the scholars were descendants of Moors who had fled Spain after the Christian re-conquest of Granada by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Among these scholars and traders were Jews, whose faith was tolerated and protected.

The manuscripts: Many of the documents are copies of earlier Koranic texts (some as recent as the 19th Century). A similar practice was followed in the monasteries of Western Europe with Christian scriptures. What is significant is that the languages used include local dialects as well as classical Arabic. This is compelling evidence of an African literacy culture before colonialists arrived. Some of the prize items are illuminated manuscripts embossed with gold leaf, which are as exquisite as, for example, The Book of Kells in Trinity College Library in Dublin.

Mbeki's visit focused South Africa's attention on a part of African heritage that had been virtually unknown in this country and it ignited the “Wow!” factor. It was great for people to learn about an African desert city that had been an intellectual centre when Europe was in the Dark Ages. It also impressed people to know that the manuscripts expressed a version of Islam that was tolerant, peaceable and scholarly: the manuscripts included works on astronomy, astrology, jurisprudence and mathematics, as well as religion and social customs. And all this happened in the heart of Africa!

The response of the South African people: The National Archives and the Department of Arts and Culture provided the training, technical and professional support for the project and arranged a major exhibition that toured six South African cities in 2008. The new library in Timbuktu was largely funded by donations from the private sector and South Africans of all races, faiths and ages rallied to support the project. Obviously the South African Moslem community was particularly involved, but the project reached out to and received enthusiastic responses from Christians, Jews, Hindus and many others. The donors, fundraisers and advisers included business luminaries such as Rick Menell, Mary Slack and Patrice Motsepe to name but a few.

Sadly, after Mbeki was ousted, the South African government lost interest in the project. A great opportunity was wasted. However, the new library was opened in early 2009 by the President of Mali and by South Africa's (interim) President, Kgalema Motlanthe. Mbeki, sadly, trailed along like a ghost at the feast. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang (who had taken over from Essop Pahad) received an undeserved medal from the President of Mali, and Ntombazana Botha received a richly deserved medal.

After Jacob Zuma came to power, the Presidency completely lost interest in the project, and in late 2010 the Department of Arts and Culture and the National Archives also lost interest (largely as a result of internal departmental power struggles), and ceased logistical, technical and administrative support.  

This meant that during the political crisis in Mali in 2012/3, when Timbuktu was occupied by Islamic fundamentalist rebels, South Africa played virtually no role in the international efforts to rescue the manuscripts or stabilise the situation. The new archives and library, built at South Africa's cost, became the rebel headquarters and was trashed by them when the French army approached.

There was no direction from the Zuma Presidency and the National Archivist, who had directed the project at the Department of Arts and Culture, had been ousted so there was no technical engagement, despite appeals from South Africa's own diplomats and from international agencies. Local families and scholars in Timbuktu took the lead in smuggling the manuscripts out of the city to relative safety in Bamako, Mali's capital. This ensured that there were very few of the manuscripts to be trashed by the rebels when they retreated before the advancing French forces.

The locals rescued the manuscripts, but moving buildings was impossible. Justice may now be done, but without any engagement from South Africa. What has happened to the vision of an African Renaissance?

Graham Dominy
Research Fellow

Reference: The most recent scholarly examination of the project is: Alexio Motsi, Preserving ancient manuscripts in hostile environments: with reference to the preservation of the ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu (M.Sc thesis, 2015, University of Dundee, Scotland, UK).