/ 24 March 2019

South Africa needs to take a position on the plight of the Turks under Erdoğan

Why is South Africa not addressing the crimes against humanity committed by Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan?
Why is South Africa not addressing the crimes against humanity committed by Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an? (Getty Images)

South Africa is still experiencing enormous challenges 25 years into democracy, and these need to be addressed urgently.Human Rights Day is celebrated on March 21 in remembrance of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre. On that day 69 people died and 180 were wounded when police fired on a peaceful crowd that had gathered in protest against the pass laws.

In the past five years there has been a significant increase in the number of complaints received by the South African Human Rights Commission regarding healthcare, food, social security and equality. Although the Bill of Rights protects the rights of every South African, Turkish citizens are living under severe apartheid conditions led by an arrogant, ruthless strongman, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. South Africans don’t seem to hear the voices of the thousands of innocent Turkish citizens, who continue to suffer under an unjust regime.

The countries have several similarities. They fall into the same economic basket of newly industrialised countries. They are both members of the G20, strong leaders of developing nations and are gateways to their regions. The relationship between South Africa and Turkey seems to be solid.

But the question remains: Why is South Africa not addressing the crimes against humanity committed by Erdoğan? Women in Turkey face economic hardship, exclusion and violence, and humiliating and degrading treatment, including in healthcare facilities, and especially during pregnancy and childbirth.

An estimated 16 000 to 20 000 women have been detained in the aftermath of the failed coup, and over 500 children under the age of six have been raised in jail by their imprisoned mothers. Women human rights defenders and other women activists continue to face challenges, driven by government-promoted discrimination against women and stereotypes about their so-called “appropriate role”. This includes issuing frequent, demeaning statements about women who do not adhere to this role.

During the 2018 Brics summit hosted in South Africa, Erdoğan met with President Cyril Ramaphosa. It was reported that during their discussions Erdoğan spoke to Ramaphosa about how some of those responsible for the 2016 failed coup are living in South Africa.

The attempted coup left at least 290 people dead and more than 1 400 injured in a chaotic night of violence. The state’s response was to declare a state of emergency, declared when it is deemed necessary to restore peace and order when the welfare of a nation is threatened by war, invasion, general insurrection, disorder or natural disaster. It gave Erdoğan the ability to rule by decree, to heighten his power over the judiciary, restrict and censor any reporting about political unrest and stripped away basic human rights.

About a quarter of Turkey’s judges and prosecutors have either been dismissed or sentenced to life in prison, which has prompted outrage and concerns that the judiciary is no longer independent.

Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian government is using its overwhelming power to settle political scores. Its move to unjustly imprison the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) leader Selahaddin Demirtas and label him a terrorist — and nine of its members of Parliament —demonstrates this disrespect for human rights.

Erdoğan has fired about 130 000 public sector workers: judges, lawyers, educators, doctors, nurses, police, soldiers and other public servants, by emergency degree. Despite these growing tensions, Ramaphosa has not spoken up against the human rights violations taking place in Turkey; instead, the South African government has made it known that it wishes to continue its trade relations with Turkey.

In 1948, the United Nations defined 30 articles of human rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It established universal human rights on the basis of humanity, freedom, justice, and peace. In June 2018, the United Nations General Assembly, for the third time, elected South Africa to serve as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the period of 2019-2020.

Ramaphosa a chance to restore South Africa’s human rights-based foreign policy and take a leadership role in resolving conflicts throughout Africa. International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said shortly after this announcement that she intends to review South Africa’s guidelines on how the country casts its vote in international forums, to ensure they are underpinned by South Africa’s values and constitutional principles. She also expressed deep concern about the deteriorating human rights situation in Myanmar.

Although it is understandable that the South African government may not want to be the one to create a diplomatic crises with Turkey, it needs to bear in mind that “there comes a point when silence is betrayal”. Ramaphosa could send out a strong message that South African will not tolerate a foreign president who made his personal ambitions and greed state policy. He has constrained the human rights of hundreds of thousands of Turkish citizens.

Erdoğan’s relatives and allies own the vast majority of the country’s mainstream media. Self-censorship is pervasive; critical journalists are jailed, fined or fired. Some have fled the country. Erdoğan’s son-in-law and finance minister, Berat Albayrak, sued some journalists for reporting on offshore investments listed in the Paradise Papers, a move that the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders condemned as threatening the survival of independent media outlets. Turkey is the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, ahead of China and Egypt, with more than 120 imprisoned since the coup attempt.

The lack of access to socioeconomic rights provides the clearest reflection of the levels of systemic poverty, unemployment and inequality in Turkey and this demonstrates the persistent recurrence of the cycle of poverty and lack of access to healthcare, social security and equality. The South African government needs to remind Erdoğan’s presidency of the importance of balancing state powers with individual rights, the separation of powers, judicial independence and press freedom.The Turkish government needs to stop repressing its own people and redress the rights of the masses who have been wronged by Erdoğan.

South African media and nongovernmental organisations can play a role in protecting and promoting human rights in Turkey. They can pursue and support low-level peace-building in Turkey, focusing on interaction with grass-roots organisations. The people of Turkey need the support of their global allies to restore their democracy. There needs to be a systematic action/intervention to restore respect for human rights, allow civil society to flourish again and lift the suffocating climate of fear that has engulfed the country.

Sello Ivan Phahle is the managing director of SIP Media. These are his own views.