Turkey’s Outreach to Africa


On 5 November the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Patrick Seale entitled “The Rise and Rise of Turkey”. This claim is no fantasy and it applies to Turkish relations with Africa as well...

On 5 November the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Patrick Seale entitled “The Rise and Rise of Turkey“. This claim is no fantasy and it applies to Turkish relations with Africa as well

Since the fall of the Ottoman empire and the creation of the Turkish republic in 1922, the country had tended to be inward-looking and reticent, taking its lead from the dictum of its creator and first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He proclaimed state policy to be “peace at home, peace abroad“. Because it was also forced to deal with the consequences of unsound economic policies that left it with rampant inflation and an economic crisis in 1999 that needed international support to resolve, Turkey had little time for pursuing a multifaceted foreign policy.

But in the past ten years Turkey began to realise that it was losing out to other powers in influence in its near neighbour, Africa. As a result, 2005 was declared Turkey’s “Year of Africa“. A series of ambitious plans were made, some of which involved the inclusion of African countries in the programmes of its state aid agency, TIKA, and also of its Religious Affairs directorate in the Muslim countries of West Africa. The number of Turkish embassies, at that time limited to South Africa and Nigeria in sub-Saharan Africa, were to be supplemented by 15 new embassies and a number of roving ambassadors based in the Foreign Ministry in the capital, Ankara. In addition, the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, visited Ethiopia and South Africa in March of that year, reciprocating a visit to Turkey by the then deputy president Jacob Zuma in 2003.

The year 2008 was important in the execution of this outreach to Africa policy. The African Union declared Turkey a strategic partner in January, and in August the Turkish president, Abdullah Gül and the President of the African Union co-hosted a Turkey-African Summit of 50 heads of state and government in Istanbul. Then deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka represented South Africa.

A comprehensive document on future co-operation, entitled The Istanbul Declaration on Africa – Turkey Partnership: Solidarity and Partnership for a Common Future was adopted by the leaders. It contained all the usual high-sounding sentiments on international governance and organisation and it identified areas for future co-operation. This list of nine over-arching topics included Trade and Investment; Agriculture, Agribusiness, Water, Rural Development and SMEs; and the Environment.

Turkey has joined the list of nations – China, India, Russia, the United States, South Korea and also the European Union – which recognise the importance of engagement with Africa and access to its resources and markets.

For almost two decades Turkey has imported South African “clean“ coal to deal with its serious atmospheric pollution and several Turkish-owned mines operate in Mpumalanga. A Turkish South African Business Council was set up and several “Anatolian Tigers“, entrepreneurial family businesses, set up factories in South Africa. The most visible of these manufacture acrylic blankets for the local market.

In his speech at the Turkish national day celebrations on 29 October, attended uncharacteristically by a South African cabinet minister and a deputy minister, the ambassador, HE Mr Can Altan, noted that bilateral trade between the two countries had grown to R20 billion in 2008, in spite of the global economic downturn, making South Africa by far Turkey’s largest trading partner south of the Sahara and second largest in all Africa after Algeria.

This year alone three major Turkish events to promote exports and investments have taken place in South Africa: a furniture exhibition, a clothing fair, and a major mission led by the Turkish State Minister for Foreign Trade, Mr Zafer Caglayan , accompanied by 80 businessmen and a large contingent of media representatives and officials. Local interest in Johannesburg and Cape Town in these events was overwhelming.

From the South African perspective, Turkey is its largest trading partner in Central and Eastern Europe, including Russia.

Long awaited political consultations between South Africa and Turkey took place in March of this year, following the setting up last year of a joint economic commission that will meet annually in future.

It was with African support that Turkey was elected to a two-year non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council commencing in 2009, gaining no less than 151 out of 192 possible votes. Turkey followed South Africa’s term which ran from 2007 to 2008.

Turkey is recognised as the 17th largest economy and the eighth largest agricultural economy in the world. As the New York Times headline said, it is “rising and rising“. Like South Africa, from the beginning in 1999 it has been a member of the G20 that has come to public prominence as a result of the international financial crisis and has replaced the G8 as the most important international economic policy-making forum.

Activity has not only been state-driven. Besides business ties, non-governmental organisations have been making an impact. Several Turkish-sponsored schools are providing high quality education in South Africa, a fact recognised by government when the former Minister of Education, Nadeli Pandor, presented one of these schools, in Mayfair, Johannesburg, with an award acknowledging the outstanding results they had achieved in the science olympiad.

In Turkey and in African countries think-tanks have started to devote attention to the new relationship. Each year the Africa Institute of the Turkish Asia Centre for Strategic Studies hosts an NGO forum to which organisations from Turkey and African countries are invited. Styled the Turkey African Congress, the fifth forum takes place in Istanbul in late November 2009.

South Africa has started to recognise the importance of Turkey, as Turkey has recognised the importance to it of its relations with Africa. These are important developments both for Turkey as a new emerging power on the world stage and for African countries as they seek to diversify their business and political contacts outside the continent.

Tom Wheeler is a Research Associate at the South African Institute of International Affairs and was South African ambassador to Turkey between 1997 and 2001.

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Continents ( 5 Fields )
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Africa 65 135
Asia 75 208
Europe 13 29
Latin America & Carribean 12 30
North America 7 5
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Balkans 22 92
Middle East 18 56
Black Sea and Caucasus 2 15
Mediterranean 2 4
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Islamic World 51 143
Turkish World 15 29
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Turkey 49 197

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