Ambassador Mngqikana: Development with Democracy
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdođan is due to visit South Africa in early March, accompanied by a large delegation of officials and entrepreneurs. Thirteen years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between South Africa and Turkey - and twelve years after the opening of the South African Embassy in Ankara – bilateral relations are trouble-free and trade is booming. Diplomat took the opportunity to speak to Ambassador Sobizana Mngqikana. The South African envoy previously studied international relations and represented the African National Congress in London and Stockholm. An accomplished jazz musician, he enjoys a reputation as “the singing ambassador” in privileged Ankara circles. Here he expresses his views both on South Africa’s relations with Turkey and on global issues of particular importance to Africa. The interview was conducted by Bernard Kennedy.
Q How would you sum up the relations between Turkey and South Africa?
A Politically, we have no problems. We support each other on international issues even though Turkey is part of NATO and we are a non-aligned country. Economically, ties are stronger than ever. The volume of trade reached over US$1bn last year, consisting mainly of South African exports, headed by gold. Turkish investments in South Africa have reached US$60m and are still rising following the signing of an agreement on the reciprocal protection of investments in the year 2000. Agreements on economic cooperation and avoidance of double taxation are in the pipeline. We have also agreed to consider a free trade agreement.
Q Are there any respects in which you think relations could be improved?
A There is still a lot of untapped potential. We are eager to see more Turkish investments in South Africa – for example investment in the South African jewellery-manufacturing sector. South Africa is involved in several regional trade and development initiatives, and therefore offers the Turks easy access to the rest of the African continent. I think we are also aware of the opportunity for us to utilise Turkey as a conduit to some of the former Soviet republics. In fact, our Embassy is accredited to five of these republics. There are opportunities for joint ventures in mining and civil engineering in Turkey, Central Asia, Iraq, South Africa and other African countries.
Q What is the Embassy working on at the moment?
A Besides the upcoming visit of Prime Minister Erdođan, we are very involved in organising participation in trade fairs and in providing information to South African business people. In this way we are trying to overcome the risk-aversion of South African entrepreneurs. Their contacts have been mainly with Western Europe and the Americas in the past, to the neglect of other areas. So it has taken time for us to develop business relations with countries like Turkey, India, Brazil or Southeast Asia – or even with the rest of Africa. I think Turkish businessmen and officials sometimes find it difficult to understand this. But as a matter of policy we are in favour of diversifying our economic relations.
Q Do many Turks visit South Africa for study or leisure purposes?
A There has been a decrease since Turkish Airlines stopped flights to South Africa. We are now hoping to revive direct flights. This will facilitate the movement of people and goods in both directions. South Africa is a good place to study English. It offers the same quality as Europe but much more cheaply. There is no real time difference between South Africa and Turkey, except during the Turkish summer when South Africa is one hour behind Turkey. And of course both countries have a vast tourist potential.
Q Let’s turn to the situation in Africa. What roles is South Africa playing?
A Unfortunately, there isn’t much news about Africa in the Turkish media except when they pick up something negative. Africa does have its own problems, including civil wars. But those are not the only things that are taking place on the Continent. In fact, I think there has been a growth of democratisation in Africa over the past ten years. South Africa has played a leading role here. We have had three democratically conducted elections. This in itself is proof of a stable country. At the same time, we look at democracy not only as a matter of people casting votes but as a process which involves trades unions, non-governmental organisations, interest groups and so on. These organisations may not always agree with the government, and I could give an example of this related to the AIDS issue. But that’s a sign of a dynamic democracy. South Africa also plays a very active role as a peace mediator in certain conflicts in Africa, such as those in Rwanda and Congo.
Q South Africa is also seeking to make an impact on global issues…
A We have an active foreign policy. We are not indifferent. One of our immediate concerns is the shape of international institutions like the UN Security Council, the IMF and the World Bank. We are of the view that some of the forms and policies of these institutions are not relevant to the present century, or do not take account of the transformations that have taken place in the decades since the Second World War. These institutions need to be democratised, to reflect today’s geopolitical and demographic realities. The UN Security Council in particular has been predominantly controlled by a few permanent members. Hopefully with the recommendations that have been presented to the Secretary General there is now going to be greater participation in the decision-making process.
We are also very active in the non-aligned movement. As chairman two years ago, we tried to steer this organisation to a much more pro-active platform. We are not saying that globalisation is wrong per se but we feel that the benefits are distorted in favour of the developed world. African countries, for instance, are unable to find markets for their agricultural products in the western countries. On the contrary, the developed countries are dumping their own excess agricultural products on Africa, thereby undermining the agricultural sector. We are looking forward to a change of attitude. Africa’s dire economic situation is one of the issues, which Prime Minister Blair of the UK is apparently going to raise at the forthcoming G-8 meeting.
Q This would include debt relief?
A There has been a lot of talk about debt relief or cancellation. There are pros and cons. I would like to express a personal view. There has been a campaign to get Iraq’s debt cancelled. In fact, Iraq is a rich country compared to a lot of African countries, which simultaneously have to pay back their debts. To me, it is a contradiction in terms when you have a strong lobby supporting the cancellation of Iraqi debt but you can’t cancel the debts of Togo, which is a poor country.
These are some of the issues, which we find disturbing. So we are trying to develop the South-South dialogue and to lobby organisations like the WTO and the G-8 etc. As developing countries, we do have problems that we can solve as a wider entity or lobby group.
Q Where does the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) fit in?
A This is an African initiative, which has gained general acceptance in the world. We do not want a dependency-type of relationship, based on aid and other forms of economic assistance, which tends to lead the aid-givers to meddle in the internal affairs of the countries concerned. We need to have access to markets. But we accept that, in return for whatever we get, we have got to try to present a democratised society, with regular relations and participation and equality for women. So NEPAD also stands for democratically elected governments rather than military governments.
While we speak with one voice, each country does have its own special concerns. But simultaneously there is a lot of solidarity. South Africa will not only play a leading role but will also share its know-how.
Q Is there also solidarity among the African ambassadors in Ankara?
A Yes, we now have a group of African ambassadors called the African Diplomatic Group. It is still in its infancy. Hopefully we will have a voice. This year we are going to celebrate Africa Day on May 24 on a larger scale than in the past, with seminars, music and similar events.
Q You are now in your fourth and final year in Ankara. What changes have you seen and how has it worked out for you personally?
A The political climate was changing almost daily when I first came, in the wake of the earthquakes and the 2001 economic crisis. After the 2002 elections things became more stable. As for me personally, I found it very easy to acclimatise, but it has been a busy period and there are some things I haven’t found time for. I used to play in a band both in South Africa and London, but now I don’t have time. In future, I look forward to doing more research and reading – I have lost touch with the academic world.