Address by Minister Pallo Jordan at the launch of “The Meanings Of Timbuktu”, Cape Town

Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
09 Apr 2008

Thank You Programme Director,
Dr Shamil Jeppie,
Dr Neville Alexander,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I want to thank you all for coming.
It is indeed a great pleasure for me to be here to launch “The Meanings of Timbuktu”.
Tonight's event is the outcome of one of the more significant NEPAD Programmes that entailed the government of South Africa, on the personal initiative of President Thabo Mbeki, undertaking a project to conserve and draw attention to the heritage of scholarship in Timbuktu. One dimension of this project is the construction of a new building to house the greater part of the collection of manuscripts of Timbuktu. The building, the new Ahmed Baba Institute of Mali, is nearing completion.

To ensure that the valuable scholarship contained in these manuscripts will now be more
effectively preserved for future generations, the South African National Library and its archival specialists have also been involved in training Malian archivists and in the preparation of special storage cases that are of low acidity.

So tonight's launch also has a celebratory element. We are celebrating not only the success of this SA-Mali Project, but also what it symbolises and its primary objective – Africans intervening to preserve Africa's cultural heritage. The principal South African role players are the Presidency, the Department of Arts and Culture and a number of our scholars, under the leadership of Dr Shamil Jeppie of the University of Cape Town. While my department has concentrated on the conservation of the manuscripts and in capacity building, the South African scholars have been at the forefront in translating these works so that they will be available to the rest of humanity.

Some two years ago, South Africa hosted an academic conference on the manuscripts that brought together scholars from Senegal, Niger, Sudan, Nigeria, Mauritania, the USA, Norway, Germany, Morocco and Mali.

The publication we are launching tonight is a collection of essays and papers emanating from that conference that shed a new light on the scholarly world of Timbuktu, if not all of pre-colonial West Africa. The Timbuktu manuscripts include detailed accounts of Sufi mysticism; they offer us insights into the dept of knowledge of astronomy then held by Africans scholars. They include writings on the occult, about talismans and even on “the virtue of dogs”. We find in them detailed accounts of traditional medicines, descriptions of a variety of botanical species. And there are of course also sacred texts, religious writings and discourse on sharia law. They shed a hitherto unknown light on the relations between the kingdoms of Mali and Morocco; on links between Mali and Turkey; on the links between Mali, Yemen, Egypt and even east Africa. They tell us that it is vitally important that we all think more carefully about the African past. They are a direct challenge to the scholars of our continent to interrogate much of the received knowledge, usually derived from non-African sources, about this continent, its peoples and their achievements. The study of African history regrettably remains marginal from the mainstream of historical research even in the South Africa of today. The wealth of evidence and written traces of the past we have from these Timbuktu manuscripts testify to how little we know of the African past. They should also warn against the glib and fatuous judgements we have from the pens of ignoramuses and the prejudiced about African history and African achievements.

They represent a direct refutation of the “conventional wisdom” that persists even in the twenty-first century, that there were written records in sub-Saharan Africa; that there was nothing worthy of note that emerged from sub-Saharan Africa before the arrival of Europeans sometime during the 15th century. A great deal of the history of this continent and its people still has to be written. Perhaps a large part of the accepted history of the African continent needs to be rewritten. The imperative to reclaim, from the grip of persistent colonial condescension and outright racist arrogance, the story of our home continent can no longer be denied.

This collection of twenty four essays is an important contribution to historical knowledge which will go a long way towards enriching the fund of human knowledge about each other. Two editors, Dr Shamil Jeppie, a South African historian and Dr Suleiman Basher Daigne, a philosopher from Senegal, collaborated to bring together some of the best research from various parts of the world. Their work will assist us to understand and appreciate more fully our African literary traditions, and specifically the place of Arabic script in that literary history. Significantly, some of the manuscripts discovered in Timbuktu discuss the need to compose poetry in the local language, Fulfilde, rather than in Arabic, though the Arabic script would of course be used.

The essays in this collection therefore do not merely link us to Timbuktu. They reach very deep into the archaeological record of West Africa and even east Africa. The scholars and librarians of Timbuktu are also represented amongst the contributors and they give us excellent accounts of their own scholarship and manuscript collecting.

A most satisfying feature of this work is that it is a truly pan-African, inter-disciplinary collaborative effort ;including archaeologists, art historians, intellectual historians, anthropologists and, of course, the librarians from Mali. I am also pleased to note the departure from our usual academic tomes – produced on tight budgets with little regard to their design. We have here a book that combines the highest standards of scholarship with some of the most aesthetically pleasing design.

Dr Jeppie is leading a major research project on the manuscripts with a group of extremely able young researchers at UCT. So, we can all look forward to seeing the results of their work in published form in the not too distant future. South Africa's universities are in a strong position to produce scholarship of the highest standards about the continent. This will require nurturing the sort of intra-African cooperation we have seen in this publication as well as the enhancement of our students' linguistic skills, not least in the languages of the African continent. At the same time, we should cultivate new frameworks for the ways in which we think of our past in this radically unequal world we live in today. We have the freedom to critically question and challenge the dominant paradigms of how the world should be organised. Historians are in a powerful position to contribute to such discourse.

The South African experience warns us against the misuses and abuses of historical knowledge. It is our hope that these essays will assist Africans, in the first instance, and humanity in general, to a better comprehension and appreciation of the diversity of the human experience.

We have heritage institutions that are capable of curating the most imaginative and impressive exhibitions about the continent. This book and the series of activities linked to the Timbuktu project, such as the exhibition of the manuscripts that IZIKO museums will mount on behalf of the Department of Arts and Culture, are examples of the possibilities once we commit ourselves to focussing our intellectual and creative energies on Africa.

We are citizens of this continent, bound up with its fortunes and its successes in a myriad ways. This Timbuktu project is a re-affirmation of our African identity. This project has greatly enhanced academic and public awareness of Africa's literary heritage. Through it South Africa has taken an unprecedented initiative whose true value will probably only be realised by future generations.

In conclusion, let me thank and congratulate Dr Shamil Jeppie and his co-workers on a job well done. Our congratulations go also to CODESRIA, in Senegal and our own Human Sciences Research Council for producing such an exciting publication.

Thank You.