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The bridesmaid of Timbuktu

At precisely 6pm the brass band struck up the tunes. The Man had arrived.

As the aircraft taxied into place at Bamako Airport, the dozens of natives bused in for entertainment also took their cue and the place exploded into a cacophony of marimbas, Rolling Stones-style guitar riff and indiscernable Francophone chatter from behind the barricades.

The griots adjusted their robes and began some leg stretches in anticipation of the tremendous leaps they would soon be performing.

The phalanx of security detail which had been standing idly beside two rows of black Benzes began moving into place and adjusting earpieces. The Malian gendarmerie, resplendent in their white uniforms and Ray Bans, stood to attention and spat out their chewing gum.

A red carpet snaked its way from the hallowed aircraft’s parking bay, around the side of the tarmac. In a burst of baby-blue bou-bou President of Mali Amadou Toumani Toure swished starchily by as he rushed to greet the eminent guest.

And there He was, descending the aircraft stairs, waving briefly as His feet touched Malian soil.

It was a welcome worthy of a victorious Caesar entering the gates of Rome — minus the adoring crowds, who perhaps stayed away because of the heat.

He was there to cement one of the greatest projects of cooperation between two African governments in modern history in a bid to preserve the continent’s ancient history.

As the two men stood at a podium the band struck up the opening chords of Le Mali, the national anthem, and the moment assumed a near sacred reverential air.

“Eish, but our president is very popular in Africa!” enthused a South African delegation member.

The rows of dignitaries took their places. Among the South African delegation were Defence Minister Charles Ngaqula, Communications Minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, former Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool and the delightfully named Ntombazana Botha, the deputy arts and culture minister.

But, unheard by the important personages lined up aside the carpet to greet the dignitaries, a man turns and asks quizzically: “Mbeki?”

Indeed, a name inextricably linked with the purpose of this affair: the South African government’s hand­over of a multimillion-rand building, which is to house about 30 000 rare manuscripts in the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu.

Had former South African president Thabo Mbeki not intervened personally during a state visit to Mali in 2002, the Timbuktu manuscripts, some dating back to the 13th century, would have wasted away in the desert and been largely lost to history. The South Africa-Mali Project, an archive restoration venture undertaken by the department of arts and culture, raised more than R60-million to fund the construction of a new building to house the manuscripts.

But in what would ordinarily be the crowning moment for a man whose legacy back home is largely in tatters, Mbeki did not assume the guest of honour role.

It was President Kgalema Motlanthe, as head of state, who assumed the role of beloved hero and saviour of the Timbuktu manuscripts.

It was only two hours later that Mbeki’s plane appeared in the skies, by which time the dancers were nursing their bunions and the wind had picked up.

Flanked by Essop Pahad and his security detail as he stepped off the plane, Mbeki cut a lonely figure. The brass band cranked up the two countries’ national anthems and the red carpet was hastily dusted off and rolled out again.

But for the uninitiated, it would appear as though the bride had already arrived.

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony in Timbuktu the next day the spectacle played itself out again. The leggy Motlanthe, wrapped in an ivory headscarf, took centre stage and read from a lengthy speech as Tuareg tribesmen came from far and wide to hear what all the fuss was about. Mbeki wasn’t even on the list of speakers and remained in thoughtful repose in his chair under the marquee during the day’s festivities.

In his customary stiff upper lip style, Mbeki appeared unfazed by his new-found proletarian status — even smiling occasionally at the dozen or so pressmen jostling to take his image at the ribbon-cutting. Later in the day’s festivities he even managed a grin at passing journalists in the VIP tent as he chomped valiantly on his roasted camel lunch.

The unsulky Mbeki, it could be said, even appeared content at playing second fiddle.

“You must remember, this was not about one man; it was a project of the presidency,” a man from the South African government delegation told me.

But there were more than a few raised eyebrows at the manner in which there appeared to be a deliberate sidelining of Mbeki in an initiative for which he has been recognised as the midwife.

Several of the project’s movers and shakers who have been there since its inception saw the relegation of Mbeki to a supporting role as an insult.

“It’s a disgrace that we’re playing our politics here: the man deserves credit where it is due,” one delegation member complained bitterly.

As Evelyn Waugh wrote on attending the coronation of Haile Selassie in 1930: “Trumping at home with prestige abroad, abroad with prestige at home —”

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