Address by the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, at the
SA-Mali Timbuktu Project Fundraising Dinner, City of Tshwane, 1 October 2005
Excellency, President Amadou Toumani Toure
Your Excellencies Ministers and
Your Excellencies, Ambassadors and High Commissioners
guests from Mali
Our guests from India, the Democratic Republic of the Congo
and elsewhere in the world
Ladies and gentlemen
Fellow South Africans
would like to extend very special thanks to H.E. President Toure for sacrificing
other appointments to be with us tonight at this gala dinner.
here indicates not only his commitment to the success of the Timbuktu Manuscript
Project but also to the noble objective to unite the people of Africa to achieve
the renaissance of our continent. Welcome Mr President, and many thanks for kindly
responding to our request to join us here tonight.
The great African distances
separate South Africa and Mali. The geographers say the distance between Bamako
and Pretoria is 5789 km. Our colonisation by different European powers added to
this separation, seeming to suggest that it would be difficult for our countries
and peoples to build meaningful relations of mutually beneficial cooperation between
President Toures presence among us and the work being
done by our countries concerning the Timbuktu Manuscripts demonstrates that, to
the contrary, we are well on course to the construction of strong bonds of cooperation
among our countries and peoples.
As we grew up as young freedom fighters
we were inspired among others by the great Malian leader and esteemed Member of
the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo, Modibo Keita, a pioneer combatant for
the renaissance of Africa.
Under his leadership, and despite its own challenges
of development, Mali emerged as one of the strongest supporters of our struggle
for freedom, truly a fellow fighter for the liberation of South Africa. The relations
of solidarity established then serve today as the firm bedrock on which we are
constructing a new partnership dedicated to the upliftment of both our peoples.
Esteemed guests, thank you very much for contributing so generously to
making this event a success. You are making an important contribution in a tangible
and demonstrable manner to give meaning to the pursuit of the goal of the African
Renaissance. The Renaissance of Africa has to begin with an understanding of our
Our history long predates the period of European colonialism. So
we must reach into, understand and expound on the era when the great kingdoms
of Africa flourished, engaged in internal and external long distance trade and
produced scholars, philosophers, scientists, and literary figures of high repute.
For our continent to take its rightful place in the history of humanity
we need to shatter the misconceptions about the history of our continent engendered
by the ideologues of European colonialism. Essential to the colonial project was
control and with control came erasure, denial and the falsification of African
For instance, the Collins Concise English Dictionary
still includes reference to Timbuktu as any distant or outlandish place.
As we know, outlandish can mean bizarre, peculiar, strange, eccentric, weird or
odd. But for us Timbuktu is and will for ever remain a place of pride and affirmation
of our African identity.
This confirms that we need to undertake, with
a degree of urgency, a process of reclamation and assertion. We must contest the
colonial denial of our history and we must initiate our own conversations and
dialogues about our past. We need our own historians and our own scholars to interpret
the history of our continent.
Our work in Timbuktu is a living example
of this contemporary process of reclamation and reassertion of identity, history
and of the rightful place of Africas centres of civilisation. This we owe
to present and future generations in Africa and globally.
When I visited
the Republic of Mali in November 2001, the then President, Dr. Alpha Konare, now
the head of the African Union, invited me to conclude the trip with a visit to
the historic city of Timbuktu.
Our delegation was warmly received by the
citys peoples who took us to view the ancient buildings that embody so much
architectural ingenuity and originality. The Djingere-Ber and the Sankore mosques
are truly astounding monuments to ancient African collective endeavour, planning
At the Ahmed Baba Centre for Research and Documentation,
now known as the Ahmed Baba Institute for Higher Learning and Islamic Research,
we were shown ancient manuscripts which are without any doubt among the most important
cultural treasures in Africa.
These manuscripts debunk the myth that the
tradition in Africa was always and only an oral tradition. The manuscripts point
to the significance of the written tradition a tradition that long predates
the arrival of European colonisers on the soil of Africa.
very important dimensions of Africas greatness and its contribution to the
history of humanity. It is world renowned as a centre of trade and a centre of
research and scholarship in the fields of science, mathematics, religion. Timbuktu
produced and attracted artists, academics, politicians, religious scholars and
Knowledge and knowledge production were revered. El Hasan ben Muhammed
el-Wazzan-ez-Zayyati, also known as Leo Africanus, visited Timbuktu after it had
passed its peak and still remarked on its peaceful people, its trade in salt,
the use of gold as a medium of exchange, and goods imported from Europe. In 1526
he wrote: The rich king of Tombuto [Timbuktu] hath many plates and sceptres
of gold, some were of (the) weight (of) 1300 pounds. And he keeps a magnificent
and well-furnished court here are a great store of doctors, judges, priests
and other learned men, that are bountifully maintained at the kings expense
and hither are brought diverse manuscripts or written books out of Barbarie,
which are sold for more money than any other merchandise.
the leading contemporary scholars on the Timbuktu Manuscripts, John Hunwick, notes
that these documents demonstrate that Many Africans could write their languages
long before European missionaries and colonialists came to impose their own forms
of writing upon them and in fact replacing the Arabic script and suppressing
its usage in the case of such major languages as Hausa and Swahili.
inspirational and incredibly rich and textured manuscripts represent an important
link to our own past, and are of inestimable value to the African Renaissance.
However, as Kwesi Kwaa Prah points out African archives are deteriorating
at a fast pace, and he notes In most of Africa it would appear that
as the economic conditions deteriorate, the archives also suffer grievously. It
is close to impossible to get people to care for archival materials in societies
where daily bread is continuously in question. So our fight against poverty
and underdevelopment in Africa and globally is one that has innumerable positive
In Timbuktu we witnessed the valiant efforts of the people to
protect the manuscripts from deterioration. Malian officials were immensely dedicated
to the tasks of collection, conservation, and preservation of these documents
for posterity. But they worked under difficult conditions and with a paucity of
resources. Clearly there was a great need to create conditions conducive to the
proper conservation and study of these important intellectual creations.
many of the manuscripts were in poor condition and in urgent need of conservation
and restoration. Other documents were stored under conditions that were far from
ideal. This reality was clear to all in our delegation.
Given the rudimentary
facilities at the centre and the harsh Saharan desert environment, these manuscripts
in the possession of the Ahmed Baba Centre, constituting one of the most extraordinary
collections of medieval manuscripts in Africa if not the world, were unlikely
to survive another 100 years under these conditions.
We had to do something.
We were compelled by the richness of the past, the realities of the present and
the imperatives of the African Renaissance to act decisively to help preserve
the African archives in Timbuktu. This immense need to preserve the vast richness
of our history led me to pledge to the President of Mali, the support of the South
African Government for their conservation efforts.
We in South Africa know
how deafening silences about our history can be. Here in our own country, the
apartheid regime locked away the evidence of the civilisation of Mapungubwe and
refused to allow independent research on the site for decades. Today we encourage
such scholarship in an effort to unlock the liberating secrets of our pre-colonial
Since this pledge in 2001, there have been several developments:
An inter-governmental agreement between South Africa and Mali was signed
in 2002. The agreement expresses the two countries commitment to undertake
a government-to-government project aimed at conserving the manuscripts at the
Ahmed Baba Centre and at rebuilding the library and archival infrastructure of
Our commitment was based on the goal to build a sincere
and productive collaboration between two African states. It is a practical illustration
that our talk of an African Renaissance and NEPAD are not empty slogans or fanciful
In 2003, on Africa Day, in Johannesburg, President Toure and I
formally launched the project.
The project has been declared an official
South African Presidential Project and has also been endorsed by the New Partnership
for Africas Development (NEPAD), as its first cultural project.
Trust Fund to raise funds from South African businesses and citizens for the conservation
of the manuscripts and the building of a new library has been established and
the Development Bank of South Africa is responsible for managing the funds.
first phase of the project to be undertaken has been the development and implementation
of a training programme for Malian conservationists and heritage professionals.
Since 2002, the National Archives of South Africa, in collaboration with conservation
specialists at the National Library and the Library of Parliament, has hosted
three batches of trainees in South Africa.
Fieldwork has also been undertaken
at the Ahmed Baba Centre in Timbuktu and it is very gratifying to note that, despite
the problems with the infrastructure, the Malian conservators and managers of
the centre have worked mightily to apply the training received in South Africa
in practice and to improve the condition of the manuscripts as much as possible
within the constraints of the site.
In fact, just a few weeks ago five
young Malian conservators returned to Mali after the third extended round of training
at our National Archives. They spent seven weeks in the country working with staff
in the conservation departments of the National Archives in Pretoria, the National
Library and the Library of Parliament in Cape Town. Our conservators will travel
to Mali this month to round off this phase of training in Timbuktu.
we have an unprecedented exhibition of 16 Malian manuscripts on show at the Standard
Bank Gallery in Johannesburg. The oldest manuscript dates to 1204. The manuscripts
are on loan thanks to the gracious generosity of the Ahmed Baba Institute and
the Malian government.
I would like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance
provided by Dr Dicko, director of the Ahmed Baba Institute from Timbuktu, in this
regard, who is also present here tonight.
South African academics are now
beginning to study the significance of specific manuscripts and develop contact
with their colleagues in Mali and other parts of the continent. Much of this effort
is centred at the University of Cape Town.
Recently the University hosted
a Timbuktu workshop that brought together leading academics and researchers from
Mali, South Africa and around the world. The workshop was another dimension of
the broader South Africa-Mali initiative. We are keen that our researchers engage
in sustained and professional studies on the fascinating contents of a range of
subjects covered by the manuscripts.
There are essentially three major
thrusts to the project:
* Firstly - to conserve the manuscripts as far
as possible and to improve their physical conditions;
* Secondly - to rebuild
the Ahmed Baba Centre on a new site so that physical conservation, access and
scholarship can all flourish once more in Timbuktu;
* And, thirdly - to
promote academic study and public awareness of this great African intellectual
treasure trove and so advance the objective of the African Renaissance.
major point of focus of the project is the building of a new library for the Ahmad
Baba Institute. South African and Malian professionals are now completing the
planning phase. They are committed to planning and completing a building that
reflects the history of the town and using technologies that are appropriate and
effective in housing this great example of African intellectual production.
must express my appreciation to Minister Pahad for spearheading the fund raising
efforts. I would also like to thank members of the inter-ministerial committee,
members of the Trust Fund and the Department of Arts and Culture, the National
Archives and the National Library for all the immensely important work they have
done on the project so far.
Our fund-raising drive for the project has
met with a very positive response from the private sector and ordinary South Africans
from all religious and cultural backgrounds. I must also thank everybody present
here tonight for your generous contributions to making this project a success.
Your efforts demonstrate in a very powerful way that Africans can and are
helping Africans in the pursuit of the greater good. Through our collective efforts
we are solidifying the ties that bind Africans together. United in our ethno-racial,
cultural and religious diversity, we are demonstrating to the world that we are
utilising our considerable skills and talents to advance the African Renaissance.
What all of you have demonstrated is that this project has moved far beyond
a government to government initiative. It is now truly a people of South Africa
to people of Mali initiative. And in making it a people to people initiative you
have demonstrated the courage of conviction that says we are shattering the colonial
myths and the silences about our past.
Through our collective actions,
we are setting the tone of the new discourse and we are asserting an African identity
and a sense of purpose, of place and history of the great cities and states of
our continent. We are asserting our right to tell our own stories about our glorious
history. And we do this to honour our past and claim our future.
Issued by: The Presidency
1 October 2005