Honorary consul general of Turkey resigns

Advocate Glenn Babb, Muizenberg

The far south was once home to several diplomatic and consular offices. The most important was the residence and office of the first Italian diplomatic representative to South Africa, Prince Natale Labia who left his legacy in Casa Labia and was the envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary of the Kingdom of Italy.

His house was hired after World War II by the Swedish envoy for a number of years. Alan Harvey, who owned Herbert Baker’s masterpiece, Coel-an-Mar, on Main Road, St James, was honorary consul of the Philippines from 1998 till his death in 2014. That just left the Turkish consulate general as the sole consular survivor in the far south… until now.

I was granted an exequatur by the South African government, signed by Nelson Mandela, to act as honorary consul general of Turkey in November 1998 and have ever since filled the position for the Western, Eastern and Northern Cape. I have now resigned.

When Turkey appointed me in 1998, Turkey was in a phase of liberalisation, was seeking to enter the European Union and was acting as a trusted bridge between the West and the Arab and Islamic world. Appointing a non-Muslim was a confirmation of the secular nature of Turkey’s policy and an affirmation that Turkey was consistent in applying the principles of Ataturk’s secular constitution of 1928. An honorary consul is a cost-free way for an embassy to ensure protection of its citizens, promotion of trade and of tourism. It is an apolitical and non-paid post.

In the 22 years I have served, I negotiated conversion of charges with public prosecutors of Turks charged with fraud, rape and assault GBH; I have visited prisons; loaned money to indigent Turks; arranged concerts for Turkish musicians; written articles on Turkish-South African relations, including one on Abubakr Effendi, the Kurdish Turk who wrote the first book in Afrikaans in 1871; returned bodies of Turks who died here or at sea to Turkey under stringent conditions; endured three demonstrations outside my office; transported ministers; and answered approximately 750 000 enquiries and visa requests.

Since the “coup” of 2016 this apolitical and secular role has been turned on its head. From then on, I was informed by the ambassador, consular posts had to be filled by a member of a mosque, a leader in the Muslim community and a contributor to Muslim charities and, moreover, had to be a supporter of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pursuit of the Gulen movement whom he accused of fomenting the “coup”.

Erdogan arrested more than 115 000 soldiers, civil servants, teachers, judges, prosecutors and journalists for their alleged role in the “coup”.

Turkey has the dubious reputation of imprisoning more journalists than any country on the planet. The consular post has thereby lost its apolitical nature, and Turkey today is unrecognisable from the Turkey of 1998.

Erdogan has a yen for the return of the Ottoman Empire and has adopted aggressive policies like invading the Kurdish areas of Syria and Iraq, intervening heavily in Libya in violation of UN resolutions, harassing Greek/Cyprus/Egyptian oil exploration, shooting down a Russian fighter jet and arming the Azeris against the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. There’s a new sheriff in town.

South Africa has resumed arms sales to Turkey, and, in April last year, six freight aircraft transported at least 200 tonnes of armaments from Rheinmetall Denel Munition in the Cape, which the ambassador disingenuously alleged was for practice exercises.

Parallel to this aggression, the secularism of Turkey is now in the intensive-care unit. The religious directorate, HIYANET, employing 150 000 people and controlling 900 mosques in Germany alone, holds sway over policies. Since the Administrative Court reversed the decision of 1928, it has taken over control of Hagia Sophia and the Chora Church, now converted from museums to mosques along with other churches.

My Turkish friends assured me that Erdogan and his policies would not last, and I should be patient. This has proved not to be true. I am uncomfortable playing a religious/political role in circumstances which have changed radically since I was appointed. I have resigned my post and shall leave it to a professional Turkish diplomat to further the non-secular path Erdogan has chosen for Turkey.