Prominent politician Essop Pahad was yesterday devastated by news that some of the famed manuscripts in Timbuktu – for which he raised R60 million to conserve – were destroyed by rebels in Mali.
Pahad called for a South African mission to assess the state of the manuscripts.
Pahad is chairman of the South Africa-Mali Project: Timbuktu Manuscripts trust that has worked to save manuscripts dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. The project ran for five years from 2003.
Pahad headed the project while minister in the Presidency from 1999 to September 2008 under the directorship of former president Thabo Mbeki. He said, however, they had not confirmed yet if the manuscripts had been destroyed.
Mali’s ambassador to South Africa, Balladji Diakite, suggested yesterday the destruction was not as great as originally thought as it was not the Ahmed Baba Institute but another one that was torched.
And he said many of the manuscripts had been removed to Bamako.
Other diplomatic sources also said the destruction had not been as great as originally feared, although they were adamant that it was the Ahmed Baba Institute which had been damaged. But they also said that most of its manuscripts had been removed over the last 10 months.
“Anybody, whatever their political or ideological position might be, if they have destroyed those most invaluable manuscripts, which is a treasure trove of history on our continent, needs to be condemned in the strongest terms,” said Pahad.
He said that “we must do whatever we can to assist the Malians to recover and restore this great heritage of our times”.
“The manuscripts are critically important for all us, not just for the people of Mali, but also for Islam because they talk about the development of Islam in Africa. A building you can replace but once the manuscripts are destroyed, it’s a destruction of our history,” he said.
“I hope that we will be able to go there as soon as it is safe. At the moment it is not safe to travel to Timbuktu. Hopefully the South African government can go in and see what it is that we can do.”
The Cape Times confirmed with a source in the Mali capital Bamako that “some of the manuscripts were burnt and stolen”.
“The Islamist rebels burnt the manuscripts that they do not agree with. They are not tolerant Muslims. Some of those manuscripts were written by Sufi Muslims and these rebels are not tolerant of that,” the source said.
Mbeki’s spokesman, Mukoni Ratshitanga, said they had not been able to confirm whether the manuscripts had been destroyed. “We want to establish the truth. There is lots of contradictory information about it,” he said.
Riason Naidoo, director of Iziko South Africa National Gallery in Cape Town, said there were about 30 000 manuscripts that “dealt with Islam, commerce, law, music and other subjects”.