Can the ICC save UCT?

Andrew Donaldson says a useful precedent may have been set in the trial of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi in the Hague

IT’S funny, but Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi doesn’t look like a terrorist. A handsome doe-eyed individual, it’s easy to imagine him as a poster boy for Berber culture, perhaps posing on a sand dune with a camel. 

But here was the Malian scamp this week, in The Hague, being sent down for nine years by the International Criminal Court for war crimes — namely for directing attacks on historical mausoleums and the almost 600-year-old Sidi Yahya mosque in Timbuktu during the brief occupation of the city in 2012 by Ansar Dine jihadists.

Mahdi’s sentence gave us much to reflect on at the Mahogany Ridge. It marked, as Unesco director general Irina Bokova put it, “the day impunity for the destruction of heritage finally came to an end”. 

Writing in The Guardian, Bokova said, “It is the first international trial to focus exclusively on crimes against historical and religious monuments. Fifteen long years after the blasting of the Bamiyan Buddhas [by the Taliban in Afghanistan], the ICC ruling on the destruction of the mausoleums of Timbuktu passed with the world still reeling over spectacular acts of devastation in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.”

Mahdi’s sentence, she continued, contributed greatly to a comprehensive response to such extremism. “The deliberate destruction of heritage has become a weapon of war, part of a broader strategy of cultural cleansing that includes murder and persecution of people in the short term, and the annihilation of identities and destruction of social fabric in the longer term.”

Mahdi was perhaps lucky in getting nine years. Had he not pleaded guilty — he was the first ICC accused to do — and expressed remorse for his crimes, he may well have been put away for thirty. 

The Ansar Dine raiders were both cruel and stupid. The 2014 French-Mauritanian film Timbuktu, directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, gives an idea of their brutally absurd sharia law: female fishmongers are forced to wear gloves when selling fish; music is banned, and a woman is sentenced to 40 lashes for singing; a couple are stoned to death for adultery; and, bizarrely, young men play football with an imaginery ball because all sport had been banned.

It was Mahdi’s task, as head of the Ansar Dine’s “manners brigade”, to enforce these and other rulings. At his trial he begged the court’s forgiveness for his behaviour, saying that he had been caught in an “evil wave” by the jihadists.

More to the point, though, he had been caught on camera supervising gangs of men with bulldozers and pickaxes as they laid waste to a world heritage site on the grounds that it was “idolatrous” — and it was this footage that led to his prosecution.

It’s a lesson that Rhodes scholar Ntokozo Qwabe, the great drama queen of the #FeesMustFall protests at the University of Cape Town, has perhaps discovered to his embarrassment.

Along with fellow rowdies, Qwabe, you will recall, last week engaged in a “shut down” of the “arrogant” law faculty. He had been armed with a “protest stick” — a sjambok, apparently — and was having a very good time of it all, prancing on desktops, when a student decided to film him with his smartphone. 

This clip, which has since gone viral, ends abruptly when Qwabe seemingly lunges towards the camera with his stick.

He later denied that he had assaulted the student; he’d only wanted to knock the phone out of his hand. As Qwabe put it on his Facebook page, “He picked it up and continued to video‚ at which point I came closer to him and told him to switch it the fuck off … Although I wish I’d actually not been a good law abiding citizen & whipped the white apartheid settler colonial entitlement out of the bastard — who continued to video record us without our consent…”

In a subsequent post, he declared that protesters would not be filmed, an act he labelled “white violence”, and added rather dramatically, “The violent anthropologising of articulations of black pain without black people’s consent is as old as settler colonial domination itself. We refuse to continue operating under the white gaze!”

Students did not appear to mind this gaze all that much when the white monopoly capital media brought to the country’s attention the behaviour of the police in dealing with demonstrations on campuses in Johannesburg and Grahamstown.

But no matter. Now that the destruction of historical and cultural institutions is an international war crime we can well understand why these youngsters would want no cameras present when they next raze a university library.

The rest of us should remember that those who would destroy our past have most likely made up their minds about our future as well.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.