What does the progression of trade relations between Turkey and South Africa signal for diplomatic and political relations between the two nations ?

What does the progression of trade relations between Turkey and South Africa signal for diplomatic and political relations between the two nations ?



As a central and powerful member of The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Turkey has since the Ottoman period of the late 19th century always maintained limited cultural, political, and economic ties with the prominent member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) South Africa. The Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s Republic of Turkey established in 1923, turned its attention to the West, and modern Turkey’s secular ruling elites and foreign policymakers largely neglected Asia and Africa. Turkey was neither among those countries who proactively supported the African National Congress’ (ANC) struggle against the Apartheid regime, and had instead established strong trade relations with the apartheid government, especially in the military field, during the white minority regime’s last years. Turkey’s 1998 “Opening to Africa Action Plan” was Turkey’s first solid Africa policy that laid the cornerstone for the relation between the two countries. Although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party significantly improved political and economic relations with South Africa since 2002, Turkey’s currently stagnant economy remains a major hindrance to Erdogan’s success in South Africa. Turkish mobile power station Karpowership’s Record South Africa deal estimated at $15 Billion, is the biggest gain to come of the AKP’s lobbying efforts with the ANC. This research paper explores how Turkey’s high trade volume with South Africa will shape the political and diplomatic climate between these regional powers.


Turkey’s religious, cultural, political, and economic relations with South Africa began in the late 19th Century. Ottoman-Kurdish Scholar Abu-Bakr Effendi who settled in Cape Town in 1862 played a significant role in establishing a historical relationship between the two states.  Ottoman consulates also actively worked in South Africa from 1861 to 1923 until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, however, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkish Republic and his successor Ismet Inonu pursued strict Western orientation until 1950, as a result, Turkey largely ignored Asia and Africa. The new Turkish Republic’s lack of resources also prevented it from reaching Sub-Saharan Africa. The Turkish state began its diplomatic relations with important African countries by opening consulates and embassies in Nigeria in 1956, and Ghana in 1957, Senegal in 1962, and Kenya in 1968. The state also established trade relations with Apartheid South Africa in 1989. The two countries upgraded their diplomatic relations to an ambassadorial level in 1991. (1)  

South Africa’s Second President Thabo Mbeki followed a multidimensional foreign policy by developing diplomatic and trade relations with African countries as well as strategic actors in global politics including Turkey. The then Deputy President Jacob Zuma’s visit to Turkey in 2003 as well as the then Prime Minister Erdogan’s visit to South Africa with a large Turkish business delegation improved relations between the two states. Erdogan signed Double Taxation, the Customs Agreement, and the Trade and Economic Cooperation Agreement with South Africa. Erdogan signed a joint declaration with South Africa during his second official visit to Pretoria on 3-5 October in 2011.

Since Erdogan came to power in 2003, Turkey’s business, aid, diplomatic, cultural, and military activities in Africa soared. Erdogan’s Turkey increased its embassies from a dozen in 2009 to 43 today. Construction, steel and cement, textiles, household goods, and electronic devices are among Turkey’s main trade and investment sectors while Ankara’s total investment in the continent stands at $6.5bn today. South Africa is today Turkey’s biggest economic partner in sub-Saharan Africa, with bilateral trade of an estimated $1.3bn in 2019, Turkey’s Ambassador to South Africa Elif Ulgen Comoglu confirmed.  Turkish Airlines flies to 51 destinations in 33 African countries, 26 of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Ulgen told African Businesses that South African tourism to Turkey surged from 15,000 arrivals in 2016 to 79,000 in 2019. (2) Erdogan made more official trips to Africa than any other non-African head of state and trade between Turkey and Africa has accelerated from $5.5bn in 2003 to more than $26bn today during his rule. 

The success of the Turkish Karpowership’s 15 billion energy deal with South Africa’s Eskom amid the country’s power crises, is bound to have a great impact on the relation between the two states. Karpowership, a subsidiary of Turkey’s Karadeniz Energy Group, owns the world's only floating power plant fleets generate power from heavy fuel oil or liquefied natural gas (LNG) and feed power directly into national grids. The company’s 25 powerships have been completed reaching 4,100 MW installed capacity and Powerships have already been supplying 60% of Gambia, 26% of Ghana, 100% of Guinea Bissau, 10% of Guinea, 10% of Mozambique, 15% of Senegal, 80% of Sierra Leone, 10% of Sudan and 16% of Zambia’s energy needs. (3)

Two Regional Powers: What are the drivers of South Africa-Turkey rapprochement?

South Africa and Turkey focused on domestic challenges such as job creation, poverty, and inequalities during the 1990s. Thanks to their growing economies and political awareness, both regional powers have been following active and dynamic foreign policy since 2000. South Africa is the leading economy in the continent and plays an active role in the African Union, thus Turkey sees Pretoria as a regional partner in the continent as Turkey pursues a very active Africa policy. South Africa fully supports the AU’s launch of an envisaged Continental Free Trade Agreement (CFTA). South Africa is also the only African member of G-20 thereby amplifying Africa’s voice globally. South African Minister of Trade and Industry, Dr. Rob Davis, signed the agreement establishing the Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) in a meeting held in Kampala, Uganda, On 7 July 2017. Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), East African Community (EAC), Southern African Development Community (SADC) trade ministers, and officials from the Common Market were ready at the meeting. South Africa’s roles in the 15-state Southern African Development Community (SADC) which is one of the AU's most dynamic Regional Economic Communities (RECs) makes relations with the country more strategic for Turkey’s Africa economic opening. (4)  

Since becoming a BRICS member in 2011, South Africa has been playing more active role in Africa and in the international system. Two major Brics’ members, Russia and China have for thousands of years had a very complex relationship with Turkey. Turkey shares common ethnic-linguistic roots with Central Asian Turkic states, who were under Soviet Rule for 70 years, and the people of China’s Xinjiang region. Then-Prime Minister Erdoğan who had grown weary of the EU membership process, stated: “Fifty years of experience is not easy. Allow us into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and save us from this trouble.” During a conversation with Russia's President Vladimir in Strelna near St. Petersburg in November 2013. (5) China is the founding and leading member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. China had become one of Turkey's three major trading partners, along with Germany and Russia while Turkey remains deeply interested in China’s New Silk Roads project. Thus, Turkey’s historical, cultural and economic relations with Moscow and Beijing, makes South Africa’s BRICS membership more important for Ankara. Turkish leader Erdogan is neither following a Western-oriented foreign policy nor pushing for Turkey’s European Membership since early 2010. Instead, Erdogan has made a great deal of effort toward developing relationships with Asian and African countries. Turkey has recently started defining itself as an “Afro-Eurasian” state. On 25-27 July 2018, Erdogan joined the BRICS Summit as head of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the body has 57 Muslim State members. Some Turkish sources believe that Erdogan’s BRICS participation occurred after an invitation from Russian President Putin. During his BRICS visit, President Erdoğan held meetings with President Xi Jinping of the People's Republic of China, and President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation. Erdogan appeared to have utilized the Summit entirely and to the greatest degree as he met with President Cyril Ramaphosa of the Republic of South Africa, President Joao Lourenco of Angola, and President Faure Gnassingbe of Togo during the summit. Erdogan also addressed the Muslim community of South Africa and took the opportunity to meet with prominent business people in South Africa.

Although South Africa doesn’t regard Turkey as a regional partner in the Middle East and Balkan region as Turkey sees South Africa as a regional partner in Sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey’s strategic position in the Middle East and recently in the Horn of Africa takes growing attention from South Africa. Turkey’s leading partner in Sub-Saharan Africa is South Africa, as of 40% of Ankara’s business in the region is with South Africa. Ankara has enhanced its presence in the Horn of Africa as Turkey has set up its biggest overseas military base in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. Turkish firms operate Mogadishu’s seaport and airport.  The Horn of Africa is a very strategic region due to its huge population. Turkey’s strong economic and military relations with Ethiopia, where the African Union headquarters is located, make Turkey an, even more, appailing country for African Union members and South Africa.

The issue of Palestine is one of the key matters uniting Turkey and South Africa in the Middle East politics. Ankara and Pretoria share a similar approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict following the Mavi Marmara incident, in which the Israeli commandos raided the ship during its attempt to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, killing 9 Turkish soldiers and one Turkish-American. Following the flotilla raid, Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv and South Africa’s former President Thabo Mbeki made a harsh statement against Israel in 2010: “Whatever it (Israel) does, it will never face the danger of international isolation especially by the major world powers, and will always ensure that regardless of the rhetoric, its interest and aspirations will always occupy the first place in the strategic considerations of the major world powers, with these of the Palestinians being dealt with as a peripheral irritation.” Mbeki also criticised Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of violating the 1967 borders and undermining the idea of “two-state solution”. Both Former President Mbeki, as well as Former President Jacob Zuma, shared similar sentiments toward the Palestinian issue as Erdogan. In the face of Western criticism, Erdogan met Hamas’ leader Khaled Masha’al in Ankara in February 2016, and Jacob Zuma, as a President of South Africa hosted Masha’al in Johannesburg in October 2015. South Africa also recalled its ambassador to Israel after at least 52 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli forces during protests over the United States moving its embassy to Jerusalem in May 2018 and then South African International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu told a journalist in Johannesburg in April 2019 that South Africa has downgraded its embassy in Tel Aviv. Both South Africa as well as Turkey supported Iran’s peaceful use of nuclear power in 2005. “South Africa backs Iran’s stance on the right of a country to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes” Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Aziz Pahad said in July 2005.

What are the diplomatic and political trappings of Turkey- South Africa relations?

Turkey’s increasing involvement in African conflicts, the Cyprus issue, the ANC’s support for PKK and the Gulen Movement’s presence in South Africa as well as Pretoria’s unwillingness to sign the Free Trade Agreement with Ankara are some major setbacks for the Turkey- South Africa relation.

Erdogan’s humanitarian and business-oriented Africa policy turned into military involvement in the continent. Sunday Times reported last year that South African President Cyril Ramaphosa urged Turkey’s President Erdogan to exercise restraint and not deploy any troops to the war-torn North African country. The Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor also talked to her Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu – also regarding this issue. Turkish military cargo planes, carrying Covid-19 medical aid to South Africa, landed in Cape Town in May 2020 and returned backed to Turkey with military equipment. South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee’s approval of the export of military hardware purchased from Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM), to Turkey when the Turkish military is at war, both in Libya and in Syria, was criticised in news articles published in South Africa’s Daily Maverick and Independent media. Following the arms export to Turkey, NCACC was questioned by the South African Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defence about reports that military hardware had been exported to Turkey in May 2020, and the possibility that these might end up in Libya. South African Minister Mthembu said the sale and use of military weapons are guided by international protocol, and also by South African regulations that military hardware is not to be sold to countries involved in conflicts. Mthembu warned (Turkey) that “countries that we interact with in good faith should not do anything that has not been agreed on”. (6)

The Cyprus issue is an ongoing dispute between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. The British Empire occupied the strategic Mediterranean Island from Ottoman Empire in 1878 and, Cyprus was unilaterally annexed by Great Britain in 1914 when the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War. Few days after the 1974 Cypriot coup d'état, initiated by the Greek military junta, the Turkish military takeover of Northern Cyprus, and the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus has controlled the southern two-thirds of the island. The Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) recognized only by Turkey, has ruled the northern third. South Africa has a considerable Greek and Greek Cypriot population that have protested Turkey’s Cyprus intervention and are lobbying against the Turkish state.

The Ruling ANC’s close relationship with senior leaders of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) is one of the major setbacks and a cause of the deteriorating relationship between Ankara and Pretoria. The PKK has been fighting against Turkey for an independent or autonomous Kurdistan in Turkey since 1984. The armed conflict between PKK and Turkish forces has led to the loss of more than 50 thousand lives since the beginning of the conflict. South Africa’s former Ambassador to Turkey, Tom Wheeler mentioned that DIRCO officials met from time to time with the representatives of PKK and that the ANC and previously PKK representatives abroad had developed personal connections. 

South Africa’s freedom icon and first president of the Republic of South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s support for PKK was a major point of conflict between the two countries. The capture of the PKK leader in Kenya in 1999, and the initial death sentence imposed on him, which was commuted in life imprisonment in 2002, disrupted Turkey’s developing relations with South Africa.

Nelson Mandela rejected Turkey’s prestigious Ataturk Peace Award in 1991 as a liberation movement leader because of Turkey’s human rights violations. When Mandela came to power in 1994, he reduced the number of its embassies in the world including Turkey as the Ankara government had once formed a strong relationship with the apartheid South Africa. The Mandela government stopped selling arms to Turkey and suspended all military agreements.

Erdogan blames Fethullah Gulen, spiritual leader of the Hizmet Movement, for the failed 15 July 2016 Coup attempt, since then, Erdogan’s AKP government treats the Gulen Movement as the ultimate enemy of the state. Erdogan’s AKP dismissed over 150 000 Hizmet followers from their jobs, and without trial arrested around 100 000 since the coup attempt. (7) The Erdogan government used to collaborate with the Gulen Movement in its African activities. AKP’s many senior members and deputies including Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and Minister of Development Cevdet Yilmaz visited Hizmet Movement education institutions in Johannesburg while the Minister of Economic Affairs Zafer Caglayan closely collaborated with Gulen Movement affiliated business association to organize Turkey’s business summits in South Africa during 2000s. Erdogan himself met several Gulen Movement members during his visits to South Africa before 2016. The Erdogan government no longer seeks any help from the Gulen Movement in their activities in Africa but instead has been requesting their extradition from African governments including South Africa. Gulen Movement affiliated schools have achieved top matric results in South Africa and many ANC leaders still appreciate the educational and community-based activities and efforts of the movement and continue engaging with members of the movement despite Turkey’s propaganda against the Gulen Movement disseminated through the Turkish Embassy and Ankara funded Maarif Foundation and Yunus Emre Foundation. The Gulen Movement began education and aid activities in Africa long before Erdogan’s Africa adventure. Erdogan’s hunt for Gulen Movement members who worked as Turkey’s soft powers since late the 1990, has been unsuccessful in South Africa, a country with a strong constitution that protects human rights.

South African media has become critical of Erdogan’s post-coup purge in Turkey and his hunt for Hizmet followers in South Africa. “Our government is well aware of Erdogan’s pronouncements that “no country in the world will be safe for Gulen members they have no right to life”. It is not in Zuma or the ANC’s political culture to capitulate to these demands.” Independent’s Group Foreing Editor Shannon Ebrahim criticised. (8)

Thembisa Fakude, from Al-Jazeera Center for Studies analysed that The Hizmet Movement has played an important role introducing and promoting Turkey in Southern and Sub-Saharan Africa and Erdogan’s recent anti-Hizmet policy will risk Turkey’s achievement in the region as the Hizmet Movement is generally popular in Southern Africa. (9)

An additional complication in Turkey and South Africa’s relationship is the Free Trade Agreement with Turkey. Despite Ankara’s tireless effort, Pretoria has not signed the agreement yet. South Africa doesn’t want Turkish goods to destroy its local manufacturing such as textile, and home appliances. Turkey and South Africa are competing in the continent and Turkish GSM Operator Turkcell’s court war with MTN is the best business competition between the two countries. Turkish mobile operator Turkell filed a damage claim of 4.2 billion Dollars against MTN in 2013 in the South Gauteng high court claiming that it had first won in 2004 to operate Iran’s first cell phone company but later MTN paid bribes and other inducements to secure the Irancell contract.


The Turkish mobile power station Karpowership’s record deal with South Africa is bound to have a considerable impact either negative or positive on the political and diplomatic relations between the two countries. The Istanbul-based company promises to provide cheap electricity to South Africa, as the country works hard toward reducing its dependence on coal while failing to find solutions to frequent power blackouts.

Karpowerships’ 20-year contract with Eskom under “the Risk Mitigation Independent Producer Procurement Programme” will certainly encourage more Turkish business investment in South Africa. Kargopowership’s Managing director Zeynep Harezi states that the Turkish firm tries to stay completely above all politics, endeavouring only to provide low-cost and reliable electricity during these uncertain times. However, one may argue that the Turkish government has utilized to its favour this giant energy contract to influence the ANC government against Gulen Movement members in the country. On the other hand, there is controversy surrounding Karpowership’s deal with Eskom as it is thought that this may limit Erdogan’s influence in South Africa. The South African media has questioned the local content exemption granted to Karpowership, as it was flagged as an issue of “extreme concern” by the Richards Bay Clean Air Association company. (10)

Although Turkey’s investment has increased in South Africa and the country has attracted attention as a strategic country in the Middle East as well as for its involvement in the Horn of Africa, Turkey’s worsening human right situation has gained a great deal of criticism from the South African media and civil society.

South Africa’s large Greek and Greek Cypriot population has also negatively influenced South Africa’s approach to Turkey. PKK and Pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party leaders who visited South Africa several times still have strong contact with the ruling ANC government. The Erdogan government failed to convince Western states as well as a Democratic South Africa that the Gulen Movement was behind the coup. South Africa remans a profitable investment destination in the region but Erdogan’s influence on the ANC government will be very limited despite an increasing trade volume.


1) Dergipark, “Turkey and South Africa Relations: Changing Dynamics in Turkish Foreign Policy”, Turk Cooperation and Coordination Agency, https://dergipark.org.tr/tr/download/article-file/422192, 2017, P.15

2) African Business, Erdogan’s ambition drives Turkey’s Africa surge, https://african.business/2021/03/trade-investment/erdogans-ambition-drives-turkeys-africa-surge,17 March 2021, 

3) Karadeniz Holding, http://www.karadenizholding.com/en/group-companies/powership, 2017

4) Dirco, South Africa plays an active role in the AU,  http://www.dirco.gov.za/docs/2017/au0711.htm, 11 July 2017

5) Hurriyet Daily News, Turkish PM Erdoğan to Putin: Take us to Shanghai, https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-pm-erdogan-to-putin-take-us-to-shanghai-58348, 22 November 2013

6) Parliament.gov.za, Ncacc To Report Back To The Joint Commıttee On Defence Regardıng Export Of Military Hardware To Turkey, https://www.parliament.gov.za/press-releases/ncacc-report-back-joint-committee-defence-regarding-export-military-hardware-turkey,  25 June 2020 

7) Turkey Purge, https://turkeypurge.com/, 4 March 2019

8) IOL, South Africa is not a hunting ground, https://www.iol.co.za/pretoria-news/south-africa-is-not-a-hunting-ground-9226874, 19 May 2017

9) AL Jazeera Center for Studies, The Future of Turkish Engagement in Africa: The Question of Hizmet, https://studies.aljazeera.net/en/reports/2016/11/future-turkish-engagement-africa-question-hizmet-161113082540850.html, 13 November 2016

10) Daily Maverick, Floating gas ‘powerships’ plan gets another free pass from South African government, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-03-14-floating-gas-powerships-plan-gets-another-free-pass-from-south-african-government/, 14 March 2021

Print   Email