By Shafiq Morton
At a reception dinner hosted by AWQAF SA, held at the Ghazali Centre in Pretoria on 23 August, incoming Turkish ambassador to SA, Elif Comuglu Ulgen, paid tribute to the warm welcome she had received upon arriving in South Africa. A career diplomat who has worked at the UN, NATO and in Pakistan, she is also the serving ambassador for Swaziland and Lesotho.
In her address to ulama, community leaders, ambassadors and NGOs, she said that she was touched by her reception upon landing in South Africa. Explaining that landing in a new country can be a daunting experience, she paid tribute to the role of Middle East envoy, Muhammad Dangor – former SA ambassador to Syria and Libya – who took time to ease her into the South African diplomatic landscape.
“Ubuntu is what happened to me, and I pay tribute to South African friendship. You are in our hearts. Turkish people never forget their enemies and they never forget their friends,” she said.
In a wide-ranging address, the ambassador touched on a number of issues, including Syria. She said meeting the imam of the mosque at the Ghazali Centre had been a moving experience, as he originally came from Aleppo.
She said that Turkey’s role in opening her borders to refugees from the Syrian crisis was more than just an issue of them being refugees. Aleppo was a beautiful, historic city with Ottoman heritage. “Syrians are our own people,” she explained, adding that before the conflict, Ankara had enjoyed a fruitful relationship with Damascus.
“If we hadn’t opened our borders, how many more innocent people would have died?” she asked.
The ambassador said that Turkey, as the 15th biggest economy in the world, was open for business in Africa. In the past two decades the amount of embassies on the continent had quadrupled to nearly 40 with more scheduled to open.
In her talk, the ambassador told the audience that few people realised DEFY was one of Turkey’s biggest investments. She said that South Africa should seriously consider formal bi-lateral relations with Ankara. Turkey was a big market with excellent opportunity for South African business.
The ambassador also spoke about Turkey’s historic links with South Africa, mentioning that she had seen in the Ottoman archives correspondence from the Sultan to Shaykh Abu Bakr Effendi in which he was given funds to distribute charity to the local Muslims of Cape Town.
She paid tribute to the humane way in which South Africa and Turkey had distributed aid to the continent in places such as Somalia without the traditional carrot-and-stick method of other governments (this being the way to lasting friendships).
In response to her speech, MP Mandla Mandela spoke about his grandfather, Madiba’s reaction to former US President, Bill Clinton, when they visited the US to collect money for the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
He recalls Clinton phoning Madiba at the airport. He said Clinton had told Madiba as a pre-condition to drop his support for Yasser ‘Arafat, Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi.
“I remember my grandfather’s tone of voice changing and him saying that he was coming to the US with, or without, Clinton’s support and that these people had stood by us in our darkest hours. We didn’t sell-out our friends. Then, to my surprise, my grandfather dropped the call!”
Mandela said that the Foundation was guided by three key development principles, education, health care and conflict resolution – particularly in rural areas.
“We cannot afford to falter in our commitment (to these principles) and we have to support the Turkish people (in their endeavours). As a Muslim community, we have a lot to re-kindle. As Muslims, we need to be at the forefront of the struggle (against poverty) and we need to share these visions with Turkey, our friend,” he said.