On the 103rd birthday of the ANC, President Jacob Zuma addresses the continent’s oldest liberation movement at a time when its character has drifted significantly from the days of exile and underground struggle, or the tenures of former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. Vashna Jagarnath argues that Zuma’s own lack of a social vision for South Africa, and the continent, is reflected in his treatment of the project started by Mbeki to preserve the Timbuktu manuscripts and that it is imperative for Africans to preserve our intellectual heritage because what gets lost in the sand is more than just paper 


On the first day of 2015 Times Live published a piece titled The Sands of indifference bury Mbeki’s Timbuktu dream. It detailed another epic failure of Zuma’s presidency. The article explained that Zuma’s government has dumped the Timbuktu Trust that was set up by President Thabo Mbeki. It declared that the dissolution of the trust, through which, “South Africa channelled its aid for the preservation of priceless documents and artefacts, marks the final chapter for one of former president Thabo Mbeki’s proudest legacies.”

While Mbeki was instrumental in setting up the trust, and supportive of efforts to secure the documents’ preservation, 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. Zuma might have been willing to travel to Tripoli in search of support for his own ambitions, but he has no genuine concern for the Pan-African vision and no interest in the ongoing intellectual battles being waged from the formerly colonised world.

Speaking on the 1st of October 2005, President Mbeki explained some of the contemporary value of these manuscripts:

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.

Timbuktu represents very important dimensions of Africa’s 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 poets.

It was this recognition of the tremendous importance of this treasure trove of medieval books, scrolls, paintings and other artefacts that led Mbeki to conclude his visit to the Republic of Mali in November 2001 in the now isolated and small town of Timbuktu on the outskirts of the Sahara desert. Mbeki’s poorly documented journey into the Sahara would signal the start of a transnational African project aimed at preserving and archiving thousands of precious documents and other artefacts.

The collection that Mbeki along with many others, including local historian Shamil Jeppie aimed to preserve and archive includes remnants of the intellectual life in a 16th century cosmopolitan city, enriched by trade – especially in gold and salt – that reached from Africa into the wider Islamic world and Europe. Up to 25 000 scholars at a time worked, as Kgalema Motlanthe has noted, on “the synthesis of what knowledge was available in the world then”. This collection is part of a universal inheritance. Just like the texts and art that come to us from all the other great centres of historical learning, it belongs to us all and is not solely of interest to Africans or Muslims. But the depth of the wound that colonialism ripped into our shared humanity, together with the contemporary way in which Islam has been caught between imperialism and a set of fascist responses to imperialism, gives this universal inheritance particular weight in relation to both the African and Islamic presence in the contemporary world.

One of the central ideas at the heart of colonial racism was the claim that reason – traced back to Ancient Greece in a way that denied its location in a cosmopolitan network stretching into North Africa, the Middle East and India – was peculiarly white and European. When South African students return to lectures in 2015, many of them will endure courses that still remain committed to this epistemic violence against most of humanity. At the same time, many students will arrive at university with the view, shaped by both the horrors of European and North American imperialism, and their fascist rivals rampaging through Nairobi, Kobani, Peshawar and Paris, that Islam has no space for the pleasures of art, learning and the exploration of the human condition. The collection of documents and artefacts that Mbeki wanted to preserve and archive – including texts on science, maths, religion, art, astronomy, and economics – represents a direct challenge to the inhuman ontological order of the modern world.

Timbuktu became one of the main pillars in Mbeki’s attempt to build an African Renaissance – a concept that struck at the heart of the racist imagination. The cosmopolitan sophistication of this medieval centre of learning provided the perfect complement to Mbeki’s own vision for contemporary Africans. And Mbeki, we should remember, was not just interested in the African presence in the modern world in the manner of a professor. Things were not purely academic for him. In January 2004, on the eve of the coup that would, once again, deny Haitians the right to determine their own future and instead make their country a vassal of the United States, Mbeki defied critics at home, along with international pressure, by travelling to Haiti to celebrate the bi-centenary of the Haitian revolution. This was a revolution, waged largely by enslaved Africans, which ended slavery in Haiti and created the first independent black republic in the modern world. Mbeki offered the Haitians military equipment, as well as words of support. In his speech in Port-au-Prince he declared that:

Today we celebrate because from 1791 to 1803, our heroes, led by the revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture and others, dared to challenge those who had trampled on these sacred things that define our being as Africans and as human beings.

Today, we are engaged in an historic struggle for the victory of the African Renaissance because we are inspired by among others, the Haitian Revolution.

We are engaged in struggle for the regeneration of all Africans, in the Americas, the Caribbean, Africa and everywhere, because we want to ensure that the struggle of our people here in Haiti, in the Caribbean, in the Americas, Europe and Africa must never be in vain.

For Mbeki, the Haitian Revolution was among the most important events in the history of modern Africa, and the documents he saw at Timbuktu were among the “most important cultural treasures in Africa.” But, as with Haiti, Timbuktu’s past seems clearer than its future.

According to various archaeological sources, several complex Iron Age settlements existed around the area of present-day Timbuktu. Although by the late 11th century Timbuktu had already developed into a small town, it was still of too little significance for many Arab geographers of the region to recognise or document. When the Muslim King of Kings Mansa Musa travelled on his now legendary pilgrimage from contemporary Mail to Mecca, he passed through both Gao and Timbuktu. Recognising the commercial viability of these small trading towns, Musa incorporated both into the Malian Kingdom. He also commissioned the building of the Djinguereber Mosque and  paid the designer Abu Es Haq es Saheli 200 kilograms of gold. This was a paltry portion of Musa’s legendary wealth. He is now considered to have been the richest man in history. His wealth at the time of his death has been estimated as the contemporary equivalent of 400 billion dollars.

When the Berber historian Ibn Battuta travelled to Timbuktu in 1353, it had become an established part of the Malian empire. Despite Malian control of Timbuktu, it remained largely independent and over the next century, Timbuktu grew and became an important trading point for the nomadic Tuareg and the Songhai, an ethnic group under the control of the Malian Empire. As the Mansa Empire weakened, the Songhai grew in strength, eventually gaining control of the entire North West region of Africa. Under the Islamic emperor Sonni Ali, the Songhai dynasty went on to run the largest empire in Saharan Africa.

It was during this period that Timbuktu began to develop into a globally important centre of learning. It reached its political, cultural and intellectual golden age in the late 15th century during the reign of Askia al-Hajj Muhammad (1493-1528). By the 15th century, Timbuktu was an intellectual centre within the African and Arab world that attracted intellectuals from Western Sahara to Moorish Spain and Persia. It was a culturally sophisticated, cosmopolitan city, home to African, Arab, Jewish, and European traders, among many others. The scholarly riches of Timbuktu reveal that these were not just narrow religious scholars, but thinkers, artists and scientist dedicated to understanding the world around them. They worked on art, astronomy, geography, history, medicine, architecture and engineering.

Timbuktu was not an anomaly within pre-colonial Africa. North African empires and cities like their counterparts in East Africa, Kenya and Tanzania, traded and were home to various groups of people from as far East as India and as far North as Italy. When the religious fundamentalists, Isabelle and Ferdinand, ascended to the throne of Spain many Muslims, Jews and others fleeing the persecution of the inquisition escaped to North Africa.

By the time Europe was lumbering out of its cold, dark ages and dusting off the shackles of Christian fundamentalism to enter into the world of trade, science, art, and industry, Timbuktu was already declining. A series of regime changes had pushed the once great city into quick decline, and it split into smaller parts controlled by various Pashas. But despite its decline, Timbuktu continued to hold the fascination of the European expansionists who still hoped to gain access to the now-fabled wealth of the region.

Fuelled by the tales of the Berber diplomat and later Christian convert Joannes Leo Africanus, many Europeans hoped to find this mythical city, imagined much like El Dorado or King Solomon’s Mines, and gain control of its treasures. The dream of treasure for the taking in distant lands would become the advance guard of colonialism around much of the world. The gold found in the Aztec and Mayan Kingdoms built grand palaces in Spain. But by the time the treasure seekers arrived in Timbuktu, Mansa Musa’s gold was long gone. This is probably why the Timbuktu manuscripts escaped the fate of those in the Mayan libraries that were burnt by the Catholic missionary, Fray Diego de Landa, another ruthless religious fundamentalist, after the Spanish conquest.

Despite the ravages of time and various conquests, including the most recent assault by an off-shoot of Al-Qaeda in 2012, many of the old manuscripts survived. But Zuma has as little interest in developing an African strategy to secure their preservation as he has in developing an education system, a public broadcaster or an energy network that can meet the aspirations of our people.

At the centre of the intellectual work that aimed to legitimate colonialism was the creation of a racial and civilizational hierarchy – with white people and Europe at the top and Africans and Africa at the bottom. One consequence of this has been, as Fred Cooper notes with reference to Mamadou Diouf, that Africa’s history becomes “a story of ‘progress’ inevitably leaving Africans or Asians on the side, lacking some crucial characteristic necessary to attain what is otherwise ‘universal’”. But of course the problem is not that some of us are still struggling to catch up and attain the universal, but that for hundreds of years some of us have been actively excluded from the universal. This is one reason why Jamaican philosopher Lewis Gordon insists on the imperative to ‘shift the geography of reason’.

The Timbuktu manuscripts would have been a great resource to challenge many of the contemporary prejudices that not only exist in the halls of academia, from Oxford to Rhodes University, but still shape popular understandings of Africa around the world. The colonial narrative that, as Chinua Achebe put it, “presented Africa in a very bad light and Africans in very lurid terms” continues to flourish everywhere from the Daily Mail to the comments section of any online newspaper in South Africa. Despite his various intellectual, political and moral failings, and there were serious failings, Mbeki had the vision and commitment to understand the importance of these manuscripts. But today we are governed by a man with no progressive vision for society as a whole, a man who is willing to destroy the institutions that we have for his own narrow interests. Patrimony has replaced principle. Zuma is, in many ways, the antithesis to many of those that have struggled to liberate this continent and its people. Here in South Africa we need to remember that there was a time when the struggle against apartheid was so much more than just a struggle to take the oppressor’s place.


Main Photograph: An example of some of the manuscripts found in Timbuktu which deal with mathematics and astronomy -refuting colonial historiographies claim of Africa’s solely oral intellectual tradition. The Con cannot confirm President Jacob Zuma’s apparent interest in astronomy, but it understands that he may choose his next wife after reading the horoscopes in You magazine’s 2015 astrological forecast


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