[Opinion] Malicious intent in Turkey’s omicron stance towards South Africa?

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Türkmen Terzi

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in an address to the nation on Sunday evening expressed deep disappointment with the countries that had imposed “unjustified and unfairly [discriminatory]” travel restrictions on South Africa due to the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Ramaphosa called on those countries to urgently reconsider the travel bans. CBS News reported that the omicron variant had been present in Europe before South Africa identified it and reported it to the World Health Organization (WHO).

He spoke passionately about how the travel bans were imposed in violation of an agreement reached at the G20 in Rome in October and how such restrictions were not only unjustified and ill-informed but discriminatory and certain to undermine the recovery of the tourism industry and the economy.

The irony is that Turkey, a country that is ostensibly committed to improving political and business relations with South Africa, was among the first countries to impose a travel ban on South Africa, which instead of applauding South Africa for being the first to identify the new coronavirus variant, proceeded to misplace it as the place of origin and spread of the variant and then punished the country with restrictions.

The omicron variant caused a great deal of panic and concern globally, with many other countries following suit in imposing travel bans on South Africa. The UK was the first country in the West to implement flight bans on South Africa, which has traditionally been the UK’s largest export and import market in Africa.

“The UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the UK seems to have been rushed as even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps. … Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries,” Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) Minister Naledi Pandor stated, criticizing the UK’s decision in her official statement issued on Nov. 26.

The first countries that rushed to implement a travel ban on South Africa included the United States and European Union members. South Africa already has a complex, strong economic and political relationship with these countries, but also a recent degree of political and economic tension since lootings and arrests in July that led to great losses in investments by the West in South Africa.

Turkey’s reasons for punishing South Africa are less calculated than those of the Western nations and may simply hinge on retaliation.

Turkey failed to support the struggle for freedom against the apartheid regime. It was unwilling to host exiled African National Congress (ANC) leaders and, what is worse in the eyes of South Africans, worked toward establishing strong relations with the regime while the rest of the world moved toward imposing sanctions and isolating the white apartheid government from the 1980s until the dawn of democracy in 1994.

Apartheid South Africa opened its African Trade Centre in İstanbul in 1991, and the countries upgraded their diplomatic relations to the ambassadorial level the same year. South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, rejected the Atatürk Peace Prize offered by then-prime minister Süleyman Demirel in 1991 due to Turkey’s human rights violations against Kurds and other minority groups.

Turkey has always been critical of the ANC’s support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the armed group that has been fighting against the Turkish state since 1984.

But Ankara’s approach toward South Africa drastically changed for the better when Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) presented 2005 as “The Year of Africa.” Similar to the UK and China, Turkey’s AKP also strategized South Africa as the gateway to the African continent.

The then-prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first visited South Africa in 2005 following Jacob Zuma’s Turkey visit in 2003 as a deputy president.

Erdoğan told the media during his visit to the Union Buildings, the official seat of the South African government, in 2005 that Africa was very important for Turkey, which has a multidimensional focus on foreign policy.

Erdoğan praised Zuma’s efforts in consolidating the continental initiative of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), an economic development program of the African Union, and he offered deepening the Turkey-Africa partnership.

Erdoğan also asked for South Africa’s support for obtaining observer status at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and for Turkey’s two-state Cyprus plan at the UN after Turkey had occupied the northern part of the island in 1974.

Erdoğan made another official visit to South Africa in 2011 and again in 2018, when he joined the BRICS summit, an international relations conference attended by the heads of state or government of the five member states — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — in Johannesburg.

The Erdoğan government tried hard and succeeded in improving its trade relations with South Africa, with bilateral trade between the two countries totaling $1.3 billion in 2019. It cannot, however, be said that political relations between the two countries have dramatically improved. South Africa views Turkey as an invader in Cyprus, and South Africa has adopted the stance of calling on all foreign military forces to leave Libya, where Turkey keeps thousands of mercenaries.

In 2017 I had the pleasure of meeting one of South Africa’s former presidents who is known for his intellectual prowess and who has played mediation roles in many conflict areas.

He asked my opinion on the true nature of Erdoğan and his team, as AKP leaders claim to be working for peace in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region while conversely and actively worsening the situation in Iraq, Syria, Libya and many other places. The former president expressed his disappointment with the AKP and stated that “Erdoğan and his team are wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

President Ramaphosa spoke to me during a Foreign Correspondent’s Association’s media briefing in November 2018 of Turkey’s keenness to establish stronger ties with South Africa and expressed how his government looked forward to engaging further with Ankara.

As a Turk, I believe that when Erdoğan and his team initially looked at South Africa, what they thought they saw was a lawless country steeped in corruption and chaos.

Various Turkish ambassadors have worked hard to convince South African authorities to extradite Gülen movement followers and to shut down their schools and the Nizamiye Mosque.

Erdoğan accuses Fethullah Gülen, the spiritual leader of the movement, of organizing a failed coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016, but Gülen has always strongly denied any involvement.

The AKP has thus far managed to bribe its way into having authorities halt the movement’s activities and charities in many parts of the continent, even going as far as kidnapping teachers from Kenya, Gabon and Somalia. However, when it comes to South Africa, Erdoğan has failed to achieve any support and cannot convince South Africa to hand over Gülen movement members.

After almost 20 years of engagement with the South Africa government, Erdoğan is now coming to the realization that South Africa is not a Third World country – it is a land with a strong constitution and the rule of law. South Africa’s firm stance against Erdoğan’s injustices and his inability to manipulate ANC leaders has likely led to the bitterness and aggression that we now see presented in the form of an unjustified and discriminatory travel ban.

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