Sands of indifference bury Mbeki's Timbuktu dream
South Africa is about to close its Timbuktu trust fund - formally ending an era that began more than a decade ago with a trip by two presidents to the hot and dusty streets of the legendary Malian desert city.
The closing 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.
In 2001, Mbeki travelled to Timbuktu on the edge of the Sahara desert, 1000km from Mali's capital, Bamako. Hosted by the then Malian president, Oumar Konaré, he was deeply moved by the ancient manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Research Institute but concerned that the institute lacked suitable preservation facilities.
He said at the time: "The Timbuktu manuscripts point to a dense archive ... There is an urgent need to ... produce a new body of knowledge about Africa and there is an urgent need for Africa to define herself."
Some of the Arabic manuscripts dated from the 13th century. Although many were religious Islamic texts, their pages also carried exquisite detail of mathematics, the natural sciences, political history and astronomy.
It was a red-letter day for Mbeki's African renaissance.
He began assembling a team of experts with the aim of building suitable archive facilities, training Malians in restoration and breathing life into the institute as a centre of education for Africa's history on its own terms .
The chief researcher for the team was Thebe Medupe, an astronomer at North-West University for whom the manuscripts were a window onto an ancient world, helping to debunk the myth that Africa had only an oral tradition.
"Those ancient documents tell us that a thriving book trade existed, and that local scholars studied and published books about the Koran, medicine, astronomy, mathematics and more," Medupe said.
"So Mbeki realised it was our responsibility as a worldwide community to make sure they weren't destroyed because they contain parts of Africa's history that people didn't know existed."
Over the next few years, a team from South Africa made regular trips to the city where temperatures average 30°C and can hit 50°C.
They trained Malians in the painstaking art of restoring old manuscripts, and a state-of-the-art facility, complete with temperature and humidity controls, was built.
But by the time the doors of the centre opened in 2009, Mbeki had been ousted as president.
At the ceremony, he sat quietly in the audience while interim president Kgalema Motlanthe made the official South African speech. Motlanthe endorsed Mbeki's long-term vision. "I am confident that, inspired by these manuscripts, African scholars will take up the cudgels and seek to redefine the role of Africa in history," he said.
Graham Dominy, who was head of the National Archives at the time, recalled: "He [Mbeki] was there, but he was looking terribly sad. We had done what we undertook to do: train a group of Malians in preservation work and build the library. But we had follow-up work to do in bringing it to life."
In 2003, the Development Bank of Southern Africa had been appointed to administer the Timbuktu trust fund, to which the private sector donated R32-million and the government R30-million.
The former deputy minister of arts and culture, Ntombazana Botha, said: "I had worked on the project from when I joined the ministry in 2004, but during that period between Mbeki being recalled and [President Jacob] Zuma coming in, we expedited what we were doing. We understood there was a possibility of things not following through. We didn't know what was going to happen."
In January 2009, with Motlanthe still at the helm, there was a "recommitment to the bilateral agreement with Mali", Botha said. "Timbuktu had been inscribed as a world heritage site and was on the danger list and that was the work we wanted to do."
But it was not to be. When Zuma took office a few months later, the project was dumped.
"The last tranche of funding was received in 2009 from government," said the development bank's spokeswoman, Nonnie Letsholo, this month. "Since then, there have been no funds deposited or transferred."
She said the trust's final statements were audited in October and a board meeting would be called soon "at which a resolution to close the trust will be taken".
There was still R90000 in the fund, she said.
The project director, University of Cape Town historian Shamil Jeppie, said: "After Mbeki's removal, the relevant ministries made as if there never was such a project.
"The actual physical building, which was quite an advanced archival facility, has been suffering from neglect and from the absence of our continuing expertise to make the building a living research and educational facility," he said.
During the 2012-13 crisis in Mali, when Islamist insurgents took control of a large section of the country, including Timbuktu, many hoped that South Africa would revive its interest in the manuscripts - which the Islamists were bent on destroying.
Dominy said at the time: "I would suggest that as South Africa has offered financial and humanitarian assistance to Mali, we should also offer our experience and expertise to undertake a damage assessment exercise and raise funds to 're-restore' the surviving collection."
But this never happened.
"There was a great deal of interest in what our country would do," said Jeppie.
"But I recall that there was not a squeak from government and if there was, it was merely to get the matter out of the way."
Today, there is no trace of the project in either of the two ministries formerly involved.
Lunga Ngqengelele, spokesman for the Department of Science and Technology, said: "Please speak to the Department of Arts and Culture as I was made to believe that they were the project leaders on behalf of the Department of Science and Technology."
Lisa Combrinck, on behalf of that department, said: "There is no annual budget allocation for this centre from the department."
So what now for the ancient scripts?
Their future is once again in the hands of the Germans, the French and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, which have stepped in to preserve the collection.
This turn of events makes Motlanthe's speech at the opening of the library in 2009 ring hollow.
"The very nature of the co-operation is a significant break from the paternalism of the past in managing the heritage and legacy of the colonised part of the world," he said then.
"Today, as a result of preservation by plunder, museums in Europe are the custodians of some of the significant antiquities of Africa."
Whether by plunder or policy, preservation of the Timbuktu manuscripts now rests squarely in First World hands.