Brothers in Arms? The ANC and the PKK
The ANC loves to call on the struggle legacy to demand faithfulness from South Africans in the everyday politics of the victory days. But does this legacy need to be recalled internationally to repay the many debts owed in the pursuit of freedom in South Africa, and to satisfy integrity to support those still fighting oppression and discrimination elsewhere?
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK) has sought South Africa out on multiple occasions to rally support for the cause of the Kurdish people and, in particular, the armed struggle against the oppression of Kurds in Turkey. When the PKK’s founder (Abdullah Öcalan) was taken hostage in Kenya in 1999 for prosecution by the Turkish authorities, he was en route to refuge in South Africa. More recently, Öcalan has been writing to Nelson Mandela, in expressions of friendship and admiration, from his imprisonment on İmralı Island in the Turkish Sea of Marmara.
The ANC’s relationship with the PKK is, perhaps predictably, ambivalent. While South Africa maintains a healthy relationship with Turkey as a strategic partner, we might recall Mandela’s declining of the Ataturk Peace Prize in 1992 or the arms embargo imposed on Turkey in 1995 as hints towards displeasure regarding the “Kurdish question” in the past.
while organisations like the ANC and the PKK represent elements of an armed struggle against oppression, the struggle is not theirs to claim in any exclusivity.
It’s not clear the extent to which the South African government, or the ANC in particular, do support the PKK in any way, never mind the extent to which they should.
There have been many who have compared the PKK and their cause with the ANC and the broader struggle against Apartheid. Most frequently the comparison has been cited by the PKK and Öcalan: the PKK’s labelling as “terrorist”, the reluctance of the forced hand of the armed struggle, the dream of peace and democracy, and the systematic nature of the oppression of those on behalf of whom they fight. A speaker representing the National Association of Democratic Lawyers reportedly also drew the comparison when the Kurdish political heroin Leyla Zana was invited to South Africa to speak by the Kurdish Human Rights Group (KHRAG).
The PKK, however, is shrouded in a mass of indistinguishable, contradicting accusations and propaganda from all sides – arguably more so, at least internationally, than the ANC was during its armed struggle. While racial oppression was rather obvious in South Africa’s Apartheid (it was more the evolution of international attitudes that delegitimized the oppression internationally), the reality of the oppression suffered by the Kurds in Turkey (as well as Iran, Iraq and Syria) is much less clear factually.
I spoke to Noory Fakhry, a Kurdish lawyer and human rights activist, to try and get a better picture of the situation. Fakhry has documented gross human rights violations that Kurdish people continue to suffer not only in Turkey but in Iran, Iraq and Syria too. While the international community is largely silent on any such abuses in Iran, Iraq or Syria, the Turkish government justifies military action against terrorist insurgent Kurds, dedicating vast amounts of resources and NATO’s second largest army to the violent repression of the insurgents and those whom Turkey deems as their supporters. Russia remains the only power silent on labelling the PKK as “terrorist” while other strategic partners of Turkey might point to accusations of the PKK allegedly targeting civilians, using child soldiers or the use of narco-trading to finance their campaign, to place the PKK on terror lists and freeze their assets.
Mr. Fakhry is certain to point out that the PKK’s policy is clear on its prohibition on targeting civilians, suicide bombings and the use of child soldiers. Organisations such as The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) with more extremist positions may undertake actions falsely labelled as that of the PKK – who Fakhry claims to operate on a highly mature human rights-based constituent with clear policies on matters relating to the preservation of the environment to the equality of women – indicating an organisation drastically at odds with that portrayed in the media. While some sources claim the absence of the “average Kurd’s” support of the PKK, Fakhry points to the DTP’s (the PKK’s political wing) massive success in local elections prior to its banning by the Turkish government. As to accusations of involvements in drug trading, it is difficult to contradict Fakhry as to the absence of any certain evidence or arrests of person involved in such activities with links to the PKK. Notably, Fakhry points to the systemic violent oppression of the Kurdish people in all regions and over a length of time that indicates not only the nature of their oppression as ethnic targeting at large, but also that any violence taken in reaction thereto by the PKK and others can not be seen as anything other than legitimate self-defence
It is difficult to say objectively where the truth lies amongst all these contradictions but while we may not be certain as to the substance of the PKK itself, surely we can be more certain as to the reality of unacceptable oppression, exclusion and murder of the Kurdish people that continues today. Perhaps strategic alliances will shift and the international community will recognise this oppression as unacceptable as it did in Apartheid and the possibility of the perspective of the PKK shifting to heroic “freedom fighters” remains open in this scenario. However, we should be cautious to recall that the real analogy lies in the fact that while organisations like the ANC and the PKK represent elements of an armed struggle against oppression, the struggle is not theirs to claim in any exclusivity. The ANC is not the totality of the millions of people who suffered under and fought against Apartheid. The Kurdish people are not the PKK. On one hand, South Africans might do well to affirm that victory against Apartheid does not belong to the ANC: it belongs to the people and the only permanent allegiance should be that owed to the principles that informed the resistance against oppression at large. Analogously, the international community cannot point to a (patently biased) perspective of the PKK as an excuse to ignore the plight of the Kurdish people.