Towards Democratic Solution From Armed Conflict – The Role Played By Leaders On Peaceful Solutions: South African And Kurdish Experiences – Mandela And Ocalan

by Judge Essa Moosa, director of the International Peace and Reconciliation Initiative and chairperson for KHRAG.

A new dawn has appeared on the horizon of Turkish political landscape. For the first time in almost 100 years the Kurdish issue in Turkey are being seriously addressed. The struggle of the Kurdish people in Turkey to enforce their legitimate claim to self-determination in terms of the Sevres Treaty was met with force, execution, imprisonment, banishment, persecution and repression. Such right to self-determination was approved by the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations[1]. The South African people of colour have also struggled, for more than 100 years, for their right to self-determination and achieved their right on 10 May 1994 with the installation of a government of national unity under the presidency of Nelson Mandela.[2] There are striking similarities between the struggle of the Kurdish people in Turkey for their right to self-determination and the right to self-determination of the oppressed people in South Africa.

Both Turkey and South Africa were colonised and subjugated by various colonial powers over the ages.  Turkey was colonised by the Persians, Mongolians, British, French and the Russians.  South Africa was colonised by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. The political and constitutional evolution of Turkey and South Africa, with the passage of time, is somewhat similar.  South Africa, as it is presently constituted, was formed in 1910 when the imperial power of Britain granted to the white population of the country a measure of self-rule on the basis of white supremacy.[3] In 1921 Turkey promulgated its first Constitution in line with the provisions of the Sevres Treaty, following the demise of the Ottoman Empire.  In 1924, Turkey adopted a Republican Constitution on the basis of Turkish hegemony. The Constitution violated the provisions of the Sevres Treaty which granted the Kurdish people in Turkey, a measure of autonomy where there is a preponderance of Kurdish people and independence after a year if the majority of the people in those regions wish to become independent of Turkey.[4]

In 1960 the apartheid regime decided to sever ties from Britain and become independent. The Government held a referendum for the white population only and they opted by a simple majority for independence from Britain and a Republic. The non-whites which constituted the majority of the population were not consulted either by the apartheid regime or Britain. Following such referendum, South Africa was a declared a Republic in terms of the South African Constitution Act of 1961.[5] In 1972 the apartheid Government introduced the State Security Council (SSC).[6]  In 1961 the military junta of Turkey, which ruled the country through an earlier coup, ushered in a new Constitution. Although the new Constitution granted certain rights to the workers and the academics, it institutionalised the political role of the military through the establishment of the National Security Council (NCS) and retained the ethnic Turkish hegemony.[7]

In September 1980, the military, once more, overthrew the Turkish civilian Government, on the pretext that PKK constituted a threat to the territorial integrity of Turkey.[8] It adopted a new Constitution. The Constitution is heavily loaded in favour of the State and militates against the democratic rights of the individual and serves as an impediment to the process of democratisation and the resolution of the Kurdish Question. In terms of such Constitution certain fundamental human rights such as freedom of speech, association, movement and political activity were considerably curtailed. The object was to stifle dissent and maintain control of the political parties, bureaucracy, media, civil society and the academia.[9]  In 1983 the apartheid regime introduced a new Constitution, after once more holding a whites only referendum, to accommodate the Coloured and Indian ethnic groups of South Africa with certain rights within the broader South African political tapestry and the Africans within the black local authorities. The Africans were previously granted sham self-rule and independence within the balkanisation of South Africa into Bantustans. The Bantustans and the inferior political system for the Coloured and Indian ethnic groups were soundly rejected by the majority of the non-white people of South Africa.[10]

Following the historic talks that were initiated by Nelson Mandela from the apartheid prison, the anti-apartheid forces led by Mandela after his release and the apartheid forces led by FW de Klerk, through a process of negotiations, agreed in principle to an interim Constitution which was legislated through the apartheid Parliament in 1993. In April 1994, all the people of South Africa, black and white, together exercised their right to self-determination by voting in the first democratic elections. A new political landscape from apartheid to democracy was miraculously created in South Africa – one that was underpinned by dignity, freedom and equality.[11] The final South African Constitution which was crafted by the Constituent Assembly was adopted by the democratic Parliament in 1996.[12] In October 2011, the Turkish Grand National Assembly established the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission to draft a new democratic and civilian Constitution.[13] Ocalan was convinced that the resistance of PKK in Turkey “has played a significant role in exposing problems associated with democracy and in suggesting the solutions to these problems………….The overriding need is for a new civilian constitution based on social consensus, that guarantees fundamental individual an social rights, including freedom of expression and the right to democratic association.” [14] 

With that brief, comparative political and constitutional background, I am going to do a comparative examination of the Kurdish and South African experiences moving from armed conflict to a political solution and the roles played and contributions made by Mandela and Ocalan in that process. In 1960 the apartheid government outlawed the ANC, PAC and other organisations of the oppressed people. It banned the leaders of these organisations and arrested and charged many of them with treason, sedition and other political offences.[15] Many of the leaders who were not arrested either went underground or left the country to continue their struggle against the apartheid regime.

On 16 December 1961 the ANC and its alliance partners officially launched the armed wing of the ANC called Umkonto-we Sizwe   (MK) translated as the “Spear of the Nation”. The Commander-in-Chief of MK was Mandela. In launching the armed struggle, the following statement was released:

The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come in South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom.[16] The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was founded in 1978 under the leadership of Abdullah Ocalan to fight for the right of self-determination of Kurdish people in Turkey. In 1979 because of the pending coup, Ocalan left Turkey and continued the struggle from abroad. With the coup, the military junta banned all Kurdish and left-wing organisations and arrested and detained their leaders and members. Because all peaceful means to fight for the rights of the Kurdish people were proscribed and met with force, banning, arrest, detention and extra-judicial killing, PKK, like the ANC and the PAC, decided in 1984 to embark on an armed struggle for the right to self-determination, dignity, freedom, genuine equality and basic human rights.[17]

Ocalan like Mandela, was arrested after being betrayed by certain foreign intelligence agencies and charged with treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. Both served their sentences on an Island – Ocalan on Imrali Island and Mandela on Robben Island. Both Ocalan and Mandela were branded as terrorists and the organisations they represented were dubbed as terrorists organisations. But on the contrary their supporters regarded them as freedom fighters and their organisations as liberation movements in terms of International Law.  Both of them initiated “talks about talks” with their respective Governments of the day from their prison cells. Both handed officials of their respective governments a Road Map to Peace. Both of them had a series of meetings with senior members of their respective Countries’ Intelligence Agencies.

The sequence of events that are unfolding in Turkey presently is not similar to the one that unfolded in South Africa. After De Klerk became President of South Africa, not only did the peace process unfold more rapidly but such process was characterised by transparency and openness. In the case of Turkey, it appears that Prime Minister Recep Erdogan is keeping the peace process close to his chest and is exercising a degree of caution. He is not negotiating personally with Ocalan as in the case between De Klerk and Mandela. He is using Hakan Fidan, MIT Chief and BDP as the interlocutors between him and Ocalan. It also appears that a deal has been struck between Fidan, acting for Erdogan, and Ocalan. This deal is made public on a piece-meal basis. All high-level decisions on security matters are made by the National Security Council (MGK) on which, amongst others, the President Gul, Prime Minister Erdogan, Chief of General Staff of the military, and MIT Chief Fidan serves. Fidan who enjoys a close and warm relationship with Erdogan, is duty bound to report to MGK.[18]

This is confirmed by the fact firstly, that Erdogan, as head of the Government, has permitted members of BDP to visit Ocalan in Imrali and to convey messages from Ocalan to PKK in the Kandil mountains of Iraq and to the Kurdish Federation namely, KCK in Brussels; secondly, Erdogan has, in principle, agreed that combatants of PKK may leave the borders of Turkey unhindered on the instructions of Ocalan and this is to take place as from the 8th May 2013 – it appears that the question of whether they do so with or without their arms, was not clarified and has created some confusion; thirdly, that Erdogan has appointed a Wise Men Commission  to monitor  and report on the withdrawal of the PKK combatants and to play an oversight role with regard to the peace process; fourthly, there appears to be an ambience between AKP and BDP in that they are co-operating and working closely together in the peace process that is unfolding; and lastly, as a matter of good faith, Erdogan has started implementing language and judicial  reform packages to meet some of the demands of Ocalan

In South Africa the truce and ceasefire between the ANC and the apartheid Government were announced after Mandela and other political prisoners were released, the ANC and other political parties were legalised, certain members of the ANC in exile were granted indemnity and permitted to take part in the talks to create the necessary climate for negotiations. The real negotiations for a new democratic Constitution started only after the political situation in the country was normalised, and the necessary space was created for the parties to negotiate on the basis of equality.[19] In Turkey before the political playing was levelled, Erdogan established the all-party parliamentary Constitutional Commission  to craft a new Constitution for the country. The Commission is still in the process of drafting such Constitution. Unlike the case of South Africa, a large sector of the Turkish population does not form part of the constitutional- making process. They are the combatants, those in prison and in exile for political reasons, the banned political activists and organisations. Because they have been excluded from the constitutional process and its outcome, the process and outcome could suffer a serious credibility crisis.  Without including the combatants inside and outside of the country in the peace process and the outcome, could hold serious consequences for the country.

The combatants or some of them could reject the peace process and the outcome and decide to continue the struggle for the right to self-determination of the Kurdish people or, because they are highly trained, they could opt for a career in crime. They have arms. They have bases. They are trained. Even a small dissident group, can play havoc with the outcome of the peace process. Once a comprehensive peace agreement is arrived at there should be proper and controlled demobilisation process of the combatants, which should include, inter alia, disarmament, liquidation of bases, rehabilitation and re-integration of combatants into society. Many of the South African combatants who either rejected the peace process or were left out of the process, embarked on a career of crime, such as armed robbery, hijacking, kidnapping and other serious crimes.

In South Africa the talks between Mandela and members of the National Intelligence Agency (NIS) was part of the confidence building exercise.[20] The Minister of Prisons was subsequently drawn in as part of such exercise. Mandela was later introduced to De Klerk who thereafter made the dramatic announcement to release Mandela and negotiate with the ANC for a political solution. During the initial contact with Mandela, there were “talks about talks” but no negotiations took place.[21] Mandela made it clear that the negotiations must take place with the ANC.[22]

Ocalan is negotiating from a position of inequality, disadvantage and weakness. The only access he has to his constituency is via the delegation of the BDP party that are allowed to meet him occasionally for a few hours at the sole discretion of the Government. The PKK or the KCK are not allowed to interact with him other than through BDP. The access that Ocalan has to his constituency is extremely limited. It frustrates proper consultation and discussion with his constituency to enable him, on behalf of his constituency, to take an informed decision on the peace process – an informed decision which will not only bind Ocalan but also his constituency.   On the other hand, the Government through MIT has unlimited access to Ocalan. The negotiation that is presently happening is between Ocalan and a state official and not the political head of the Government. This could have all sorts of implications. When Mandela was offered his freedom if he renounces violence by De Klerk’s predecessor, namely, PW Botha, Mandela retorted: “Let Botha show he was different from his predecessors. Let him renounce violence. Let him unban the people’s organisations. …..Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into any contracts”.[23]  Earlier the Minister of Law and Order of the apartheid government, Louis le Grange, said that let the ANC forego its guerrilla attacks and enter into the political arena instead; then the government would talk to them.[24] Is the latter not the scenario that we are seeing that is unfolding presently in Turkey?

This is a scenario that was rejected by the ANC and Mandela.

At the time that Mandela’s constituency discovered that he was talking to the apartheid regime, certain members of his constituency were extremely concerned that the apartheid government would get Mandela to make certain concessions which would not be acceptable to his constituency both in the country and abroad. Mandela had to re-assure his constituency firstly, that he would not compromise their demands for a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic State; and secondly, that he is not negotiating on behalf of the ANC, he is merely holding talks to clear the way for negotiations between the apartheid government and the ANC. The PKK is displaying the same concern and reservation. They are approaching the peace process with a certain degree of caution. The question that worries them is: has Ocalan made any concession which they would not be able to sell to their constituency, for example, that senior members of the PKK cannot return to their fatherland but must find their abode in a foreign country or that Ocalan will be granted freedom not in Turkey but in a foreign country?  Will the combatants be granted immunity from prosecution at the end of the peace process? Will the PKK political prisoners be granted amnesty and be released from imprisonment? If not, the question that can arise amongst members of his constituency is:  “What have we been fighting for?”.

It is in the interest of the credibility of the peace process in Turkey and the outcome of such process that the political playing field between Erdogan and Ocalan be levelled. What that means is firstly, that Ocalan should be released so that he could negotiate as an equal and without any restrictions; secondly, that he be given unlimited access to his constituency in order to obtain mandates from it to negotiate with the Government so that the outcome of the peace negotiations could be credible and binding; thirdly that all political prisoners be released and be granted amnesty or immunity from prosecution to enable them to participate in the peace process; fourthly, that all political exiles including combatants be granted amnesty and/or immunity and be permitted to return to the Turkey to likewise participate in the peace process; fifthly, that all banned political organisations be legitimized and sixthly, that constitutional and legal reforms be introduced to create the necessary political space for dialogue and negotiations for the settlement Kurdish Question in Turkey and the adoption of a new democratic and civilian Constitution.

In order to resolve the Kurdish issue in Turkey, it is necessary for the new democratic  Constitution to provide, inter alia,  for : a democratic constitution with all the built-in safeguards in accordance with good  democratic practice including but not limited to the participation of minority political parties in the legislative process in  a manner consistent with such practice; a justiciable and an entrenched Bill of Rights guaranteeing and protecting minority rights, diversity of cultures, languages and religions consistent with international law and protocols  and recognition and protection of organs of civil society, including political, cultural and religious associations and for the right of its citizens to be educated in their mother-tongue ; separation of powers between the legislature, executive and judiciary; the judiciary shall be independent, impartial and entrusted with the task of protecting and enforcing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights ; and the devolution of powers to regional and local level for effective and democratic governance of the country.

One cannot discount the fact that there will be people on both sides of the divide opposed to the settlement of the conflict either because of political reasons or vested interests. They might do everything possible to sabotage the talks. The first indication of this was the assassination of the three Kurdish activists in Paris. in January 2013.[25] South Africa experienced the same onslaught from the apartheid security establishments and the right-wing political structures.  In 1988 we witnessed the assassination also in Paris of the ANC representative, Ms Dulcie September, under similar circumstances.[26] The French Magistrate, Claude Forkel, who investigated the murder of Septwmber, found that it was carried out by a member of the Presidential Guard of Comoros, when it was funded by the South African Military Intelligence. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) investigating the death of September concluded that the assassination has been part of the South African operation to eliminate senior ANC figures.[27]  During the process of negotiations, certain elements within the apartheid military fomented and unleashed violence in the black townships to derail the negotiations. The result was that hundreds were killed and thousands were injured.[28]

In June 1992, Mandela called off the negotiations with De Klerk and demanded that he find and prosecute those responsible for the massacres. Ocalan likewise called off his talks with MIT when the three Kurdish activists were assassinated in Paris and only resumed the talks a few weeks later with the arrest of a Turkish suspect. De Klerk appointed a Judicial Commission of Enquiry which found that high-ranking officers within military intelligence had mounted covert operations to undermine the ANC and the negotiations. De Klerk dismissed 23 senior military officers.[29] In March 1993, Mandela resumed the talks. On 10 April 1993 the right-wing, including a member of Parliament of a conservative party, assassinated a popular and charismatic leader of the ANC, who was destined to follow up Mandela as leader. He was the leader of the armed-wing of the ANC, namely Chris Hani. At the time South Africa was plunged on the verge of a civil war and the talks on the brink of collapse.  Mandela had to appeal to his followers for calm and restraint to avoid a bloodbath and the breakdown of the peace negotiations.[30]

How the peace process in Turkey will unfold in future remains to be seen, According to Reuters Berlin:  “Only Ocalan and a few Turkish officials have direct knowledge of the peace plan, communicating through letters.” [31] It is highly unlikely that Erdogan would not have knowledge of the peace plan if there is such a plan.  According to Selahattin Demirtas, co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) the peace plan “comprised three stages first, a withdrawal, then legislative changes and a third stage that would include political talks and ‘normalisation’.” [32] In my view the peace process in Turkey has become irreversible. The irreversibility is dictated by a number of factors. The “Arab Spring” engulfed some countries in North Africa and the Middle East against despotic rule and undemocratic practices and continues to haunt them. The “Arab Spring” also sparked off political turmoil in Syria which has destabilised the country, destroyed infra-structure, killed and displayed thousands of Syrians, and attracted thousands of foreign elements and mercenaries with different objectives and agendas. The solution of the Syrian conflict lies in the hands of the Syrian people and not in the hands of foreigners. It is imperative that all the elements of the Syrian population including the Assad Regime enter into dialogue and negotiations for the peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict. It is in the interest of the neighbouring countries including Turkey to encourage such a settlement.

It is my considered view that, should Erdogan succeed in finding peace at home with his Kurdish compatriots, he will leaves his footprints in the annals of Turkish history. In that event, he will also be able to contribute positively to finding a peaceful and negotiated solution to the problems of the rest of the Middle East, which includes Syria, Iran, Palestine and Israel. Once peace is secured in Turkey, it has, with its human and natural resources, the state of its economy and its strategic location, the potential to become a great and powerful country in the Middle East.


[1] Articles 62 and 64 of the Sevres Treaty of 1920

[2] Apartheid: An Illustrated History by Michael Morris at p. 178

[3] South African Government and Politics (1971) pp. 34-38 by Dennis Worrall

[4] G. Chailand (Ed) People Without a Country: The Kurds and Kurdistan (London: Zed Press, 1980 at p.42

[5] The Road to Democracy in South Africa , volume 1 [1960 – 1970], second edition, published by Unisa Press in 2010, at p.33

[6] APARTHEID, An Illustrated History, (supra) at p. 95

[7] The Turkish Constitution and the Kurdish Question – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – Barkey and Kadiologlu Commentary, August 1, 2011 at p. 2 et al

[8] The Kurdistan File (Brussels: Kurdish Foundation – Free UniversityBrussels, 1989 at p.33

[9] The Turkish Constitution and the Kurdish Question, supra, at p. 3

[10] Allan Boesak: Running with Horses’ Reflections of an accidental politician at p.393

[11] Tom Lodge: MANDELA, A Critical Life (Ed 2006) at p. 181

[12] The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 (Act 108 of 1996)

[13] TESEV: What do we Expect from the New Constitution? by Can Parker: published in Milliyet on 27 November 2012

[14] Abdullah Ocalan: Prisone Writings 111: THE ROAD MAP TO NEGOTIATIONS (First Ed) Feb 2012 at p. 18

[15] APARTHEID: An Illustrated History by Michael Morris at p.68

[16] The Manifesto of MK, published on 16 December 1961 and served as an exhibit in the treason trial of Nelson Mandela and others and quoted by Mandela from the dock at the opening of the defence case in the Pretoria Supreme Court on 20 April 1964

[17] Abdullah Ocalan: Prison Writings, The PKK and the Kurdish Question in the 21st Century, International Initiative Edition, 2011 at ps. 116 & 135

[18] Murat Yetkin – How did the Security Council hear the PKK statement? Daily News: April/27/2013

[19] APARTHEID: An Illustrated History (supra) at p. 158

[20] Tom Lodge: MANDELA (supra) at p. 164

[21] Tom Lodge: MANDELA (supra) at p.158

[22] Ibid at p. 161

[23] Tom Lodge: MANDELA (supra) at p. 157

[24] Ibid at p. 156

[25] Special Report: In Paris Kurd killings, a suspect and a mystery by Nicholas Vinocur and Alexandra Hudson: Reuters April 16, 2013

[26] The Road to Democracy in South Africa (supra) volume 3 (International Solidarity) at p. 674

[27] Report in the Cape Times, a daily newspaper circulating in Cape Town, date 18 May 2012 and see Jacaranda Time by Zenzile Khoisan – a TRC Investigstor, at page 49

[28] Tom Lodge MANDELA (supra) at p.177

[29] Tom Lodge: MANDELA (supra) pp. 180-181

[30] APARTHEID: An Illustrated History (supra) at pp. 171-172

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