The Timbuktu manuscripts must be preserved because they reflect the contribution of the African mind to the human story.
This is according to Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, who was speaking in Johannesburg on Friday at the launch of a book about the construction of the Ahmed Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research in Mali.
The building was constructed to house the historic manuscripts of African scholars dating back some 800 years. The largest collection of manuscripts, numbering about 30 000, is housed in the institute, named after the famous scholar Ahmed Baba, who lived from 1556 to 1627. The rest of the texts are housed in the private libraries of families in and around the city.
Entitled "Building an African Partnership", the book tells the story of the cooperation of South Africa and Mali in constructing the building, dating from 2001, when then President Thabo Mbeki first mooted the idea, to 2009, when the new impressive structure was officially opened.
Motlanthe paid tribute to Mbeki for showing "remarkable foresight in understanding the intrinsic value of the manuscripts".
Motlanthe said the exceptional cooperation between South Africa and Mali reflected close ties forged over the years.
However, he expressed concern over the threats posed to the building by armed rebels. "I hope that no human will be so base as to threaten these treasures."
Essop Pahad, chairperson of the Timbuktu Trust, said now that the book had been published, the trust would fold and the project would be handed over to the Department of Arts and Culture.
Deputy Arts and Culture Minister Joe Phaahla pledged South Africa's continued support in preserving the manuscripts. He expressed hope that the conflict in Mali would be resolved and the manuscripts saved.
"One can only hope that through the intervention of the African Union, the political situation in Mali will be normalised as soon as possible, and work that is still pending regarding this project will be resumed without any further hurdles," Phaahla said.