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Barbarism should not triumph over civilisation

Smanga Sethene

Prophet Muhammad (saw), had this to say when he was asked about the importance of acquisition of knowledge by men and women who had the honour of his blessed company and time:

“Acquire knowledge. It enables its possessor to distinguish right from wrong; it lightens the way to heaven; it is our friend in the desert; our society in solitude; our companion when friendless; it guides us to happiness; it sustains us in misery; it is an ornament amongst friends; and an armour against enemies”.

These words by the “unlettered” Prophet came rushing to my mind as I received the unfortunate news of the barbaric act of torching the law library at Howard College that has benefitted many legal minds in South Africa and far afield. In total disbelief, I called two of my former law teachers to verify the media reports that were trending on social networks with pictures attached to them. They too, confirmed what I had hoped was a fiction.

I dived into the state of suspended animation hoping to hear different reports contrary to the initial ones. I reflected that whenever I wanted to research any legal topic, studying for tests and examinations, or seeking refuge to the luxuries between hard covers to broaden my vistas, the torched law library was the place to be. At times when swimming in the sea of solace, connected to every ventricle fibre of my being, I sought asylum in the very same library. I am saddened that countless tomes that have been torched are irreplaceable and that is to the detriment of the future development of our jurisprudence. The aesthetic features of the iconic building itself would never regain its novel beauty. That iconic building now stands like a tall tree in winter robbed of its timeless beauty and elegance. No amount of engineering would remedy the effects of barbarism perpetrated against that iconic building without reason.

To me, the mindless torching of the law library in particular is beyond any measure of barbarism. It is brazen barbarism at its extremes. It is akin to the destruction of the manuscripts of Timbuktu in Mali by persons who could not see the light presented by the Holy Quran throughout their upbringing. Woe unto those who do not attach any currency to the importance of the books and the acquisition of knowledge!

Reflecting on the destruction of Timbuktu manuscripts, Jonathan Jones, writing for the Guardian (28 January 2013), had this to say:

“Timbuktu is Africa’s city of books an learning that disproved racists myths about the continent. That luminous inheritance is what the Islamists have destroyed. The destruction of Timbuktu manuscripts is an offence against the whole of Africa”.

Would it be too much to ask of the society that whoever found to have either perpetrated, directly or indirectly, the torching of the law library or who aided or harboured its perpetrators be surrendered to the International Criminal Court of Justice the same way as the illiterates who destroyed the library in Timbuktu.

It is despicable that the Minister of Higher Education, Dr Blade Ndzimande, was aware last year that student protests have destruction of university property as one of the dominant emblems, failed to convene a convention of all student formations from all universities to agree and sign a charter that was to bind all to protest without destroying properties belonging to the universities. Besides, the Minister, with the benefit of what happened last year at various universities, ought to have in consultation with the universities and student formations, proposed a legislation that was to have punitive sanctions for anyone found guilty of destroying educational facilities. In a developed democracy, such dismal failure to take appropriate steps for a minister would have seen him recalled.

On the 1st October 2002, a government owned ferry called Joola sank in Senegal claiming the lives of more than 1000 people. The Ministers of Transport and Armed Forces in Senegal, did not wait for President Abdoulaye Wade to fire them, they resigned as ministers. Their resignations instilled public confidence in the citizenry of Senegal.

Sadly, we all know that in South Africa, our democracy is not yet fertile enough for public officials to fall on their swords and accept responsibility of their inactions or omissions. The same goes with irregular appointments of persons with no requisite skills in key industries. Consequences…Dololo!!! Our courts will speak.

Now that today, many of us marched out of poverty with pride as a consequence of the hard work and the information we obtained from the tomes from the torched law library, let us to something honourable. I suggest that it would be apt that all former law graduates of the institution contribute financially, in ways possible, and within our means in helping the university to purchase law books. Common sense dictates that if we who benefitted cannot do something, the university with its trifling budget would have a law library that is poorly resourced. Perhaps, those who are meandering into retirement must be encouraged to donate their personal law libraries to the institution. By so doing, we will be ensuring that barbarism does not triumph over civilisation.

*The writer is a practicing advocate and a member of the Johannesburg Bar. He writes in his personal capacity.