The comparison between Turkey and South African apartheid is ubiquitous. Just as apartheid South Africa and many other settler colonies did in the past, Turkey is now utilising policies of ethnic discrimination, institutional racism, racial segregation, ethnic cleansing, arbitrary arrest and depravation of human rights to advance and preserve the interests of the colonialists while suppressing and relegating to the peripheral the basic human rights of the colonised population.
The unyielding resistance, resilience and principled conduct of South Africans, and the sacrifices which they made to overthrow hundreds of years of Dutch and British colonialism and entrenched apartheid, are without doubt exceptional and praiseworthy. The challenge and defeat of the powerful and brutal forces that maintained historic injustice was a tremendous feat by South Africans. It underscores the power of popular movements and presents a sterling example for Kurds.
As a matter of course, the Kurdish liberation discourse like the Palestinian liberation discourse, has adopted references to the popular struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Be that as it may, in the haste to emphasise the similarities between the two experiences – which itself stems from the burning and justifiable desire of Kurds to achieve their own ‘South Africa moment’, Kurds who look up to post-apartheid South Africa also have to critically examine its many failures. Two major errors are made. First, Kurds often misconstrue and romanticise the path of the South African anti-apartheid struggle. Second, there is a widely-shared belief, among Kurds and their supporters, that the official scrapping of apartheid laws automatically ushered in democracy and equality in South Africa.
This leads to the erroneous assumption that a similar legal victory in Turkey and the region can solve all of the Kurds’ problems and pave the way for their freedom. Kurds must hear and examine closely the views and experiences of South Africans (be they human rights activists, intellectuals or former liberation movement fighters) who have fought and continue to fight for equality, equity and substantive democracy, so that Kurds can better understand post-apartheid South Africa and draw important lessons for their own struggle.
Democracy: challenges, nation and state
Of the many challenges that post-apartheid South Africa has faced: key thereto is the building of a nation that must make a ringing and decisive break from the previously established racial segregation, depravation of human rights and oppression. A common future for the oppressor and the oppressed can only be built when there is agreement that a new nation needs to be become extant within a new state. It might be tempting to talk about the emergence of a new state now and leave the question of the new nation for some post-liberation phase, this would be catastrophic. The deferment for South Africans has resulted with dire living consequences.
Since the onset of democracy governments in South Africa have emphasised symbols of unity and celebrated diversity. Mere symbolism was not enough to bring together a nation. The approach to the constitution of nationhood in post-apartheid South Africa has often favoured the liberal democratic, aspirational claims of human and legal rights enshrined in a constitution, its symbols, flags and anthems for unification, while leaving untouched the structural arrangements and enduring characteristics of historically institutionalised entrenched power, and social fragmentation. The formation of a truly unified state and nationhood can only be possible through the eradication of every conceivable form of educational, economic and social privilege. The expectation that dismantling apartheid political structures and introducing democracy would enable the nation-building process, underscores the democratic breakthrough of 1994, as only the commencement of democracy and building an equal and anti-racist society. However, the emergence of the neoliberal project continues to increase inequality and ongoing challenges in overcoming institutionalised racism, which undermine the nation-building project.
Rights, land and inequality
South Africa remains the most unequal country in the world, inextricably linked to the neoliberal economic model which was adopted since 1994 by the South African government, and is closely associated with the powerful, neo-colonial forces that remain at work in South Africa.
The rescinding of apartheid law did not change the class formation and power relations in South Africa, as the post-apartheid period witnesses the continuation of the class character of the state despite the discourse of human rights, liberal bourgeois democracy and development, and the incorporation of South Africa into a global market economy. Thus, while racially-based discriminatory laws were struck down inequality remains. Beneficiaries remain the traditional white capitalists, a small percentile of the black middle class together with a few black capitalists, and of course global capital at the expense of the majority.
This persisting inequality manifests itself in so far as land rights and redistribution thereof. As in the case of Kurds, South Africans perceive land as having much more than monetary value. For the African people in particular land is tied to identity, cultural and historical roots, as well as a connectedness to their ancestors.
South Africans expected the land to be returned to them after 1994. For years the African National Congress-led tripartite alliance [African National Congress (ANC), South African Communist Party (SACP), Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)] government remained reluctant to confiscate any land from whites. Fearing such a move would cause the country to lose foreign investment and support, the government instead sought to procure land by buying it from whites. A willing seller willing buyer model, which turned out to be an abject failure.
Recently the ANC has adopted a resolution to push forward legislation to expropriate land without compensation. While some have celebrated the move, others are sceptical and point to Zimbabwe. While the hesitancy seeks the continuance of past minority privilege, land remains a contentious issue and will not be resolved by a government that prioritises foreign investment over the just expectation of land redistribution.
The spectre of violence
The end of apartheid did not mean the end of state repression and coercion. While violence by the South African security apparatus is rationalised differently than during apartheid, the traumatising impact is essentially the same. The South African government has used repression to maintain control. This may be linked to the failure of transitional justice and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which did not adequately address and resolve the effects of apartheid violence on the general population.
The TRC promised to heal South Africa and bring about reconciliation to a once deeply divided country. While the TRC was generally welcomed by the international community as a peaceful means of overcoming a violent past. Decades later it is viewed with much scepticism by South Africans as many apartheid era perpetrators have got away ‘scot free’. The lack of political will to prosecute apartheid era death squads and senior politicians linked to apartheid era massacres, executions, torture and killings in police detention has further exacerbated the view that the TRC was a failure.
As a result of the lack of true and sincere reconciliation and a serious undertaking by the ANC-led government to address apartheid era brutality in all its manifestations and structures, violence has also spread within formerly oppressed communities. Today’s mob violence in South African society has deep apartheid era roots. The building of people’s power through civic associations, street, ward, and block committees, defence units and people’s courts to deal with apartheid state sanctioned-violence was much-vaunted, but a combination of factors, such as mass detention, arrests and exile of experienced and mature socio-political leaders, lack of skills, sectarianism, factionalism, and infiltration by agents of the state, settling of personal scores etc, led to several horrific acts of miscarriage of democracy that reduced the activities of some of these civic associations, street, ward, and block committees, defence units and people’s courts into mob justice.
The South African experience is fraught with difficulties and setbacks. Many of the country’s intellectuals and former liberation fighters who are not in government feel that the post-apartheid project is abysmal. In order to eliminate Turkey’s apartheid and colonialist policies and conduct, and to build a brighter future in which Kurds and Turks share the land and resources on equal footing, we have to learn from South Africa’s mistakes.
Kurds should therefore pay attention to what is going on in South Africa today, rather than just celebrate and praise its past of anti-apartheid struggle. All these issues: post-apartheid nation-building, economic inequality, social justice, land redistribution and violence, need to be considered and woven into the Kurdish liberation strategy.
Mahmoud Patel, legal scholar and human rights activist, is a senior lecturer in the University of the Western Cape. He is the chairperson of the Kurdish Human Rights Action Group in South Africa.