We all know the basics by now: when Saudi Arabian journalist and commentator Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on 2 October, he was never seen again. Saudi Arabia says he died in a scuffle, but evidence, drip fed to media by a Turkish government that is relishing the spotlight, strongly suggests that he was tortured and dismembered by a Saudi Arabian hit squad.
Khashoggi’s death has dominated international news headlines for the past three weeks. It has precipitated multiple diplomatic crises, plunged the Middle East into a new era of instability, and may cause a spike in oil prices, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the global economy.
Not all murders are taken so seriously. But Khashoggi’s was different, in part because it so brazenly violated basic international norms, along with Turkish sovereignty.
Similar dynamics were at play when Russian dissident Sergei Skripal was poisoned in the English city of Salisbury, allegedly by Russian security agents. The attack on Skripal was also major international news, fuelled by the outrage of the British government which fiercely criticised the Russian government and persuaded its allies, including the United States, to impose stiff new economic sanctions on Russia.
The message, from both Turkey and the United Kingdom, is clear: it is unacceptable for foreign governments to assassinate their citizens on Turkish and British soil, respectively.
South Africa’s messaging on this exact issue has been less consistent.
Earlier this year, an Ethiopian national named Gezahegn Gebremeskel was murdered in broad daylight in Johannesburg. He was a vocal critic of the Ethiopian government. His family blame the government for his death, claiming that the night before his murder, he was forcibly ejected from an Ethiopian embassy event; and that, on the same night, he received threatening messages on social media. Tellingly, the murderer made no attempt to rob him of the two expensive cellphones and the R15 000 in cash that he was carrying.
The South African government has made no comment on the subject whatsoever, even though the circumstantial evidence points to the possibility of a state-sponsored assassination. Absolutely no public pressure was put on the Ethiopian government to defend the very serious allegations against them.
It was only in a response to questions from the Mail & Guardian that the Ethiopian embassy in Pretoria addressed the issue, strongly denying any involvement in Gezahegn’s death.
South Africa’s journalists failed too. The M&G was the only South African newspaper to cover the story. It did get a mention on SABC, but it was reported as an ordinary murder, devoid of any of the political context which made it so troubling. Far from raising the alarm, the rest of the country’s increasingly insular media ignored it entirely, too focussed on internal politics to interrogate whether a foreign government was assassinating its citizens on South African soil.
If his family’s claims are true, Gezahegn would not be the first foreign national to be allegedly murdered in South Africa by their own government. On New Year’s Eve in 2013, former Rwandan spy chief Patrick Karageya was strangled in his room at the Michelangelo in Sandton. His family blame Rwandan security operatives. Another Rwandan in exile in South Africa, Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, has been the subject of repeated assassination attempts.
In Nyamwasa’s case, the South African government took dramatic action: first (in 2010) recalling its ambassador to Kigali, and later (in 2014) expelling several Rwandan diplomats. Then-justice minister Jeff Radebe said that South Africa “will not be used as a springboard to do illegal activities”.
A similarly robust response has not been afforded to the late Gezahegn Gebremeskel. And this is sending a strong message to other dissidents that South Africa is a not a safe space. Several members of African diaspora organisations told the M&G that they now feel vulnerable in South Africa, and that they do not believe that the South African government would act to protect them from their own governments. Nor do they think that South African media would raise an outcry if something terrible were to happen to them.
They asked: If Jamal Khashoggi had been killed in South Africa, would anyone have cared? It’s a good question.