The Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library is the first of its kind in Africa: it will be located on a university campus, UNISA, with access by all to the papers and collectibles of President Mbeki and former First Lady, Zanele Mbeki; it will serve not only as a legacy of the public life of Thabo Mbeki which began in 1955, but also as a center for Mbeki’s ideas, especially the African renaissance, and his engagement in the liberation and prosperity of the African continent. In welcoming members of the media and invited guests to the media announcement of the TMPL, Martin Ramotshela emphasized that the significance of this event cannot be over emphasized because, very often, the papers and legacy of African heads of states are housed in western libraries, and Africans have to travel there to learn about the lives and public service of their own leaders. He pointed out that the result of this was not only the loss of knowledge but also a situation in which others interpret knowledge about Africa for us.
According to information provided by UNISA, the decision by the Thabo Mbeki Foundation to locate the TMPL on its campus rested on the nationalistic idea that it wanted the library to be placed at an important center of learning in the continent. The decision to house the library at UNISA made sense to many of us because UNISA, which has the largest academic library in Africa, makes it a perfect home for a resource center intended to serve Africa and is also home to the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute (TMALI). The library is designed to be a living and interactive one that would serve Africa by bringing together the papers of President Mbeki and Mrs. Mbeki as well as other important documents of African leaders. The library will offer historical and contemporary reflections on the leadership of President Mbeki and African leaders, and in the light of a commitment to the African Renaissance it will help scholars continue to ask questions about the future of our continent.
The library is designed to be an African project that will be controlled by Africans and serve as a space for knowledge and research on Africa that will be used to transform Africa. In this respect, UNISA believes that the life and times of President Mbeki is an important window into the broad objectives and mission of the library and the museum. UNISA projects that phase one of the library will run till 2018. During this time, UNISA and The Thabo Mbeki Foundation will focus on fund raising. In phase two, a new multi library will be constructed to meet all the needs of the projected objectives of the TMPL.
The colloquium was preceded by the introduction of the library to the media on September 16, 2014. The co-chairs of the events were Professor Mandla Makhanya, the Principal and Vice Chancellor of UNISA, and Dr. Brigalia Bam, the Chairperson of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation. Also present at the media event and throughout the discussion by experts at the two day colloquium were former First Lady Zanele Mbeki, her assistant Dr. Maureen Tong; Board Members of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute (TMALI); the Deputy Vice Chancellors of UNISA; former Vice Chancellor of UNISA, Professor Barney Pityana and Mrs. Pityana; Senior Administrators of UNISA; and the Head and staff of TMALI.
Professor Makhanya, with his usual grace and elegance, said that he was there to announce to the media, the special invitees, and the rest of Africa, that UNISA, in partnership with the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, has kept the promise both made to establish the Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library, following the establishment of the Thabo Mbeki Institute for Thought Leadership. The journey to this event began several years ago under the leadership of Professor Barney Pityana, the former Vice Chancellor of UNISA. Both Professor Makhanya and Dr. Bam told the guests and participants at the colloquium that the Thabo Mbeki Presidential library was designed to be one of its kind in Africa because it would contain the papers and other effects of President Mbeki and First Lady Zanele Mbeki and the Mbeki family and cover their lives from 1955 to the present.
President Mbeki was not present at the announcement because he was away in his capacity as the Chair of the Eminent Person’s Group working on peace in Sudan and South Sudan, but he sent a recorded video message that greeted members of the media and colloquium attendees and he told them that all had been invited to see the plans and the library prototype, and to give their input into the development of a library that will serve all of Africa. Dr. Buhle Mbambo-Thata, an impressive figure, the Executive Director of UNISA Libraries,showed the reporters and invitees the prototype of the library, andMrs. Mbeki led the guests in signing a visitors’ book.
Dr. Mbambo-Thata located this project in the context of Presidential libraries, especially in its modern incarnation in the United States and Africa, stating that the TMPL is designed to be different because it will not be a stand-alone monument, but an interactive center of learning and activities devoted to the promotion of the African renaissance; thus, it will serve Africa in the promotion of “Knowledge, Peace, Prosperity, and Freedom,” to reflect some of the cardinal issues which President Thabo Mbeki has pursued during his long political career. UNISA and the Thabo Mbeki Foundation will work to preserve the library in an appropriate environment. The library launching in September coincided with the celebrations of Heritage Day and celebrate the memories of Steve Bantu Biko. During the first phase, the prototype will be housed on the first floor of the library in Kgorong building, UNISA’s main campus. The library goes operational next year on the fourth floor of the present UNISA library. In the final phase, a multi-purpose building housing the library and museum will be constructed and completed in 2018. In responding to questions from the media, the Director said that fund-raising by the Thabo Mbeki Foundation was on target, although there is still a lot of work to be done on that front.
The two-day colloquium brought together experts who have followed Thabo Mbeki’s political career to speak on different aspects of his career and leadership in South Africa, Africa, and the global stage. The goal of the colloquium was “to introduce the concept of the Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library to . . . [those] interested in engaging on the important issue—how far has Africa advanced from the time in 1900, when the first Pan African Congress said ’the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line’, to the current time when the African Union just celebrated her jubilee and mapped the way forward for the next 50 years through its vision 2063?” The colloquium was to interrogate these issues through the life and service of Thabo Mbeki. Its specific objectives were to “contribute to the development of a template for an African Presidential Library; to enrich Mr. Mbeki’s story using the identified timelines for the TMPL, to develop a framework for the TMPL programmes; and to identify areas of research and scholarship that will be promoted by the library.”
These presentations focused on the idea of a presidential library in general, then moved to specifics that addressed Mbeki’s life and family and his intellectual and political development in involvement in the liberation struggles and in unifying the movement during a period that spanned from 1971-1989; Mbeki’s involvement in negotiating the end of apartheid and transition to a democratic society, his presidential leadership and peace building efforts in Africa, and post presidential years. Experts addressed specific aspect of Mbeki’s pre-presidential days, the presidency, and the post presidency. The speakers included intellectuals, scholars, leaders and luminaries who served with Mbeki in the ANC liberation movement in exile, politicians who served in Mbeki’s cabinet, some members of his staff; experts such as directors of memorial centers including the Robben Island Museum, The Freedom Park, and the Nelson Mandela Center for Memory, librarians and curators, architects, and multi media specialists. International speakers included Professor Kwesi Prah Snr. of the Center for Advanced Studies of African Society in Cape Town, Toyin Falola of the University of Texas at Austin, Elias Bongmba of Rice University in Houston, Texas, and Professor Hellicy Ngambi, the Vice Chancellor of Mulungushi University, Zambia.
The program director of the colloquium on the first day was Mr. Aziz Pahad, former Deputy Foreign Minister of South Africa, who welcomed the symposium participants and encouraged them to engage in a lively discussion as they were gathered to participate in shaping the TMPL. Professor Makhanya, the Principal and Vice Chancellor of UNISA, welcomed the participants to the symposium and told them that he looked forward to good deliberations that would help UNISA and the Thabo Mbeki Foundation move forward with the library project. Dr. Brigalia Bam, Chair Person of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, also welcomed participants and pointed out that the project was taking place at the right time. Dr. Mbhambo-Thata laid out the objectives of the colloquium, gave a broad overview of the library project, and invited participants to remain engaged in the discussion as they were participating in shaping the establishment of a unique intellectual institution for Africa and its posterity.
The theme of the first panel, “Memory, and history in shaping Africa’s Development”, was discussed by Professor Prah Snr, Dr. Wally Serote (former CEO of Freedom Park) and Falola. Prah focused on memory, history, language and Pan Africanism as themes that occupied President Mbeki, arguing that both in his leadership and focus on renaissance, Mbeki emphasized that Africans have to be grounded in their memory, history, languages, and must cultivate a pan African spirit. He stressed that without the development of literacy, the cultivation of memory and development of African languages that can be used in trade and science, Africa would always take a back seat in global affairs. Serote reflects on the significance of memory and their representation in physical spaces.
The points expressed in Toyin Falola’s presentation are connected to the overall mission of the creation of the Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library, an initiative that deserves our praise, support, and publicity. A library of this nature, Falola argues, covers the past and the present: the past in its historicity, identity, and the making of contemporary politics; the present in the make-up of society and how what we call the present is a capsule of the past and the contemporary. The present speaks to the past, represents the contemporary, suggests the variety of meanings of modernity. But the burden of that present is to imagine a future, to gesture at the multiple desires of the idea of the nation and of the self living within it. Our understanding of the present has to be futuristic, but it can only do so based on the knowledge of the interpreted past, the imagined present, and future aspirations. As clear as the present might be, we still have to imagine it, as it is an embodiment of multiple desire from one person to another, and that of a collective desire. Of course, there will be contestations at all levels: contestations on the meanings and ideas of the past and present. An imagined future has to be equally contested, for as it invents newness, the degree to which it ruptures past identities has to be debated. A future cannot rob itself of key elements of its past; it cannot deny itself of the accumulated wisdoms of its ancestors; it cannot erase its own long-term formulated cultural and group identity to become something so plastic that no one can recognize it; and it cannot throw away its language and defining characteristics at the altar of futuristic changes.
The second panel addressed “Legacy Projects, Presidential Libraries and archives in Africa.” The speakers included Mr. Sibongseni Mkhize, the CEO of Robben Island, Ms Bridget Mabandla, Former Minister of Arts and Culture, and Mr. John Tsebe, former National Librarian of the Republic of South Africa. Mr. Mkhize discussed the making of the Robben Island Museum, and pointed out that one of the lessons he learned from the project is the fact that while it was a national and world heritage treasure, the stakeholders also include former prisoners who continue to have emotional attachments to the Island. Former Minister Mabandla placed the TMPL in the context of the cultural heritage of South Africa and the African continent, and Mr. Tsebe discussed the undertaking in the context of the history of presidential libraries in the United States where the concept has taken roots since the middle of the previous century.
The afternoon session was chaired by Professor Vusi Gumede, Head of the Thabo Mbeki Leadership Institute (TMALI) Speakers included Professor Bongmba, Mr. Mavuso Msimang, a former member of the Luthuli Detachment, the Reverend Dr. Frank Chikane, former Cabinet Secretary, Advocate Mojanku Gumbi Former Legal Adviser to the Presidency and Trustee of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, Honourable Thoko Didiza, member of parliament, and Professor Hellicy Ngambi, Vice Chancellor of Mulungushi University, Zambia. Elias Bongmba spoke on the Mbeki pre-presidential and presidential years on Mr. Mbeki’s contribution to Pan Africanism and the African Renaissance, arguing that the library should stress the memory of Mbeki and his political career and relationship with Africa and its leaders, since Mbeki was one of the few South African intellectuals and leaders who met and worked with many African leaders as representative and ambassador of the African National Congress to Africa. During those years, Mbeki cultivated a political and diplomatic relationship with African leaders in the spirit of pan Africanism and worked closely with many of the leaders of Africa. These memories should all be part of the library. He argued that if there is one thing that is central to the message of Thabo Mbeki it is his articulation of the African Renaissance, through which he called for a rebirth of Africa and a revival of the African personality. Professor Bongmba outlined the different dimension of the African Renaissance and pointed out that Mbeki used this theme to talk about African freedom, liberation, the practice of good governance, the end of corruption, and he challenged African leaders to end greed and work to end poverty. Emphasizing that in addition to reading Mbeki as a neo liberal economist, it would be prudent to reread Mbeki’s writings, pronouncements on poverty since no African leader in recent memory has focused on, and tackled poverty as Mbeki has done. In order to actualize his ideals, Mbeki has engaged in peace building efforts throughout Africa and worked to create institutions that would usher in a new spirit of governance in the hopes that this would foster favorable conditions for economic recovery and strengthen African competitiveness in the global economy. These institutions include the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), the African Union (AU), and a dedicated effort to make the Southern African Development Countries work and function economically. The last section of Bongmba’s presentation focused on the mission of the library and he discussed briefly the stated objectives of the TMPL which is to promote knowledge, peace, prosperity, and equality.
Professor Ngambi discussed leadership and the qualities of a great leader which she learned from President Thabo Mbeki. She argued that the TMPL will be a center of scholarship that should work together with TMLI to train leaders who will work for the development of Africa. Professor Pityana, former Vice Chancellor of UNISA and Rector of the Anglican Theological College, directed the program on day two of the colloquium. The first set of presentations addressed library and museum programming, sustainability, research and scholarship and explored lessons learned from other libraries and memorials in South Africa. Speakers included Dr. Judy Henning, the Deputy Director of UNISA Library Services, Mr. Sello Hatang, the CEO of the Nelson Mandela Centre for Memory, and Professor Pitika Ntuli, poet and sculptor. Another panel was devoted to the framework of presidential libraries and focused on technology and architectural models. Architects, Jeremie Malan of Malan Architects, Luyanda Mpahlwa, Director of Design and Principal, Design Space, spoke on conceptualizing and designing the kind of space for special projects like library and discussed famous buildings around the world including the South African Embassy in Berlin, designed by Mr. Luyanda Mpahlwa’s previous company. Mr. Birad Yajnik of Visual Quest India discussed the multi media aspects of the library. Both Prof. Pityana and Dr. Molapo Qhobela, UNISA Vice-Principal for Institutional Development provided inspirational closing statements.
Our overall assessment of the week in Pretoria was that TMPL sets new grounds for such initiatives in Africa, because of not only the person and work of Mbeki, but also his commitment to African thought, ideals, and success. From our reading, the African Renaissance calls for a new way of doing politics and business in Africa and Mbeki himself has been a champion of both ideals. TMPL thus honors President and Mrs. Mbeki, but it is designed carefully to serve as an intellectual nerve center for the renewal and strengthening of the African community. This is not the first time that an African intellectual and leader has called on Africans to assume responsibility for their destiny. It is certainly the first that a leader has articulated the ideas and set out in a systematic manner to debate African issues at home, on the continent, and in the global arena and worked with other African leaders to realize the much needed change in our political and economic culture.
We also came away impressed with the preparations that have been made by The Thabo Mbeki Foundation under its Chair, Dr. Bam, and generous support of Thabo Mbeki and Mrs. Mbeki. We were also very impressed with the manner in which UNISA’s academic, administrative leaders, and the governing board of UNISA has embraced the project and integrated TMPL into the academic life of UNISA without losing sight of the African centeredness of TMPL. We were impressed with UNISA’s investment in TMPL, and considered it a strong statement about its intellectual leadership on the continent where scholars need to develop knowledge that serves Africa. We are confident that the library, under the leadership of a very competent Executive Director, Dr. B. Mbambo-Thata, will do an excellent job.
We note with gratitude Thabo Mbeki’s sense of the longue durée of African intellectual history and culture. Mbeki himself has made reference to the ancient library of Alexandria and we note that he worked very hard to restore the manuscripts of Timbuktu, a rare intellectual and cultural treasure. This posture reflects the humility of the man and concretely places the current project in the intellectual history of Africa, but, more importantly, makes us take him serious when he says in a “small corner of a great continent that has contributed so decisively to the evolution of humanity. . . Africa reaffirms that she is continuing her rise from the ashes.” The resurrection which he has also baptized the African Renaissance continues to stand as an invitation to all Africans to remember that “whoever we may be, whatever our immediate interest, however much we carry baggage from our past, however much we have been caught by the fashion of cynicism and loss of faith in the capacity of our people, let us err today and say-nothing can stop us now.” The journey that has started at UNISA with the launching of TMPL, according to Dr. Brigalia Bam, Chairperson of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, that Africa and Africans “are not just an exciting area of research and mineral resources, and that, in fact, we can make a contribution globally with our scholarship. And this is the great heritage to the generations that will come, and the greatest gift that has come to the continent at the right time.”
It was exciting for us to prepare presentations for the colloquium but when we arrived Tshwane we were delighted to note the extent to which our colleagues at UNISA and the Thabo Mbeki Foundation had taken the consultative process on the establishment and launching of TMPL. While a presidential library frames and puts into perspective the life and mission of the president it honors, it has been clear to us (Falola serves on the Board of the Thabo Mbeki Leadership Institute and Bongmba offered insights about the library early in the discussions) the Mbekis are not interested to build a monument to their honor, but rather are interested in what can be accomplished in this space for the future of Africa. We came away with the view that this was indeed a first in Africa and one that will succeed because of the thoughtfulness and dedication of all the people working to make the TMPL a reality and a nerve center for an African intellectual renaissance.
We commend the humility and grace of Mrs. Mbeki who attended all the events and made cogent intellectual contributions. She represents a model of leadership to be emulated.
As scholars, we support the creation of a new and exciting intellectual institution which promises to serve as a living and an interactive academic and informative space for Africans of all ages and backgrounds. We have said to ourselves that if there is one place where such a dream can be sustained, it is at UNISA where, as we noted, the intellectual vibrancy of the place is also matched by the quality of service and a dedication to the maintenance of the facilities that serve as spaces for what we do as academics.
The exuberance we experienced at the colloquium was so great that we resisted asking many questions such as: What if the funding does not materialize. Falola at one point suggested that African leaders be invited to donate to the construction of the library. This is something that will be done, and which we plan to join others to pursue. We also thought about the collections. In addition to the artifacts and memorabilia of President Mbeki and the Mbeki family, the library will maintain a rigorous collection of resources, especially in a digital age. They have the capacity to carry out a sustainable and viable collection because the success of this library is assured: UNISA already has an impressive library and the Director, Dr. Mbambo-Thata, promised that they will do everything that it takes to make this the world class library it should be.
The Mbeki family, the Mbeki Foundation, the Thabo Mbeki Institute, UNISA, and all progressive Africans will surely identify with Toyin Falola’s closing statement in his presentation at the colloquium:
In all of these Pan-Africanist perspectives, Africans of all persuasions, identities, ethnicities and gamut must put their hands collectively on the continental metaphoric plow so that we can have (i) a shorter and definite walk to freedom, as compared to Madiba Nelson Mandela’s proverbial long walk to freedom; (ii) the Pan-Africanist ideals that Sir Albert Luthuli, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, Sekou Toure, Samora Machel, Kenneth Kaunda, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, and above all George Padmore, among others, preached; and, in the end, (3) we can shout on African roof tops that, like Martin Luther King, jr. and his proponents for USA Civil Rights, that “We Shall Overcome” all of our shortcomings, including neo-colonialism and emerge victorious as proud sons and daughters of Africa. A presidential library of this magnitude and of a proven political father figure like Mbeki must become a fishbowl (receptacle) for containing and sustaining documentations of ideas relating to the African past, present and future, the restoration of its glories, and the jealous embrace of its beauty. We can do so with the information that we will research and benefit from The Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library that we are inaugurating with this colloquium.