In November 2001, former President Thabo Mbeki visited the Republic of Mali and the then President of the country, Dr. Alpha Konare invited President Mbeki on a site visit to the historic town of Timbuktu. Two years later, on Africa Day, 25 May 2003, President Mbeki officially launched the South Africa – Mali Timbuktu Manuscripts Project.
The Timbuktu Manuscripts project is collaboration between the governments of South Africa and Mali, as well as other stakeholders and role-players. The project seeks to preserve, catalogue and secure the housing of this magnificent documentary heritage at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu. The conservation of the historic manuscripts involves the provision of training, technical support and assistance for the development of conservation facilities. In 2003, the South African Government, has through the National Archives of the Department of Arts and Culture, instituted a training programme for Malian conservators and heritage professionals at appropriate South African institutions. This programme completed the second phase of a three-year internship programme to train conservators from the Ahmed Baba Institute in preservation and conservation repair. The final stages of the programme involve conservation and repair to the manuscripts.
At the heart of the Timbuktu Manuscripts project is the preservation of a rich legacy of written history dating back to the 13th century. There is widely held perception that African cultures were solely based on the oral history tradition. Other dubious views hold that African history begins when the Europeans landed on the continent. The Timbuktu Manuscripts disprove all such notions as they detail information held in ancient libraries about the wealthy trading port, as well as the centre for academics and scholars of religion, literature and science.
The Timbuktu Manuscripts project is a prime example of the importance of cultural diplomacy as part of the South African government’s engagements. Cultural diplomacy is based on five principles, namely: Respect and Recognition of Cultural Diversity & Heritage, Global Intercultural Dialogue, Justice, Equality & Interdependence, The Protection of International Human Rights, Global Peace & Stability. For South Africa, cultural diplomacy is about building a continent that safeguards its heritage and encourages its arts as part of sustainable development. The Department of Arts and Culture seeks to use cultural diplomacy to “build the African continent that treasures democracy”.
As witnessed in the Timbuktu Manuscripts project, through cultural diplomacy nations can strengthen political relations, contribute to the cultural, educational and infrastructural development in the other’s country, as well as promote and/or preserve the heritage of the other. Practically, this has entailed the exchange between academics from South African universities and their counterparts in Mali. Formal studies on the manuscripts continue to enlighten us about our African heritage in matters of law, science, trade, and culture, to name but a few. The project also raises funds from South African business and the public for the construction of buildings. The Western Cape Province has contributed by convening a group of professionals in the construction industry, builders, engineers, quantity surveyors and architects, to partake in the building of structures.
These are but few examples of the quality of exchanges encouraged by cultural diplomacy. One of the by-products of this type of engagement is that it lays the foundation for nations to interact at other levels. For example, it also presents a platform for these nations to engage in dialogue around critical issues to do with human rights, peace, and stability, if and when required, as there is already a pre-existing relationship built through cultural diplomacy. This is a key factor in dialogue, as the parties around the table will have demonstrated to one another their interest in and commitment to the well-being of the other. Their exchanges through cultural diplomacy demonstrate that the welfare of the other is integrally linked to them.
The African Union is cited as a case study for cultural diplomacy. The African Union (AU) was formed as a result of a declaration by African heads of state in Sirte, Libya, on 9 September 1999, to succeed the Organisation of African Unity. This declaration is commonly referred to as the Sirte Declaration. The inaugural assembly of the AU was convened in Durban in July 2002. The AU seeks to integrate the cultural, political and economic streams of Africa’s nations with the intent to secure peace and stability for the advancement of sustainable development. The AU as a body illustrates how the principles of cultural diplomacy may be applied as part of an institutional approach to fostering peace and stability on the continent. The task of uniting 54 nations is by no means an easy one to achieve. But processes like cultural diplomacy are but one of the means through which the AU can move closer to its vision of a united states of Africa.
Cultural diplomacy is also referred to as “soft power”. According to political scientist Dr. Joseph S. Nye, soft power is “the ability to persuade through culture, values and ideas, as opposed to ‘hard power’, which conquers or coerces through military might”. The history of politics shows that nations have typically favoured the ‘hard power’ approach to conducting regional and international relations. But in a world with increased globalisation, with interconnectivity through the internet and social media platforms, and social awareness, soft power plays an increasingly greater role in matters of regional and international diplomacy.
South Africa as one of the political and economic giants on the continent, has seen the value of cultural diplomacy at various levels. It understands that using its political and economy force to resolve issues is not only short-sighted, but typically does not yield positive results. South Africa’s effort in establishing peace in Sudan is one such example of soft power in action. But equally important is that the opening ceremony of the 2010 World Cup gave a platform to South African musicians, as well as, musicians from all corners of Africa, including Khaled, Tinariwen, Femi Kuti, Osibisa, Amadou & Mariam, Angelique Kidjo, K’Naan, and Vieux Farka Toure. The combination of these activities go a lot further in demonstrating to people across borders the ways in which unity can be achieved. By recognising one another legacies in history, the arts, culture, among others, fostering peace and stability will be a lot easier.