It was an emotional celebration for many Ottoman descendants in South Africa when they were granted Turkish citizenship at a city function on 24 November 2020. The first Ottomans came to South Africa 158 years ago. Turkish-born Dr Halim Gençoğlu of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Centre for African Studies was instrumental in the development.
At the event, Dr Gençoğlu made a presentation about the historical relations between Turkey and South Africa, after which the Turkish consul-general, Sinan Yeşildağ, presented Turkish identity documents to a number of people.
Gençoğlu is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Asian-African Project in UCT’s Centre for African Studies in the School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics. Much of his research concerns early Ottomans in South Africa and how their racial identity here was shaped by the politics of race: binding race classification regardless of nationality.
History reflected at UCT
This history is reflected in UCT’s own record. The first Muslim medical doctor to graduate from UCT, Muhammed Shukri Effendi, was an Ottoman descendant who was classified as black at the time. Effendi attended Trafalgar High School and went on to pursue medical studies at UCT, graduating as a medical doctor in 1942.
Gençoğlu’s painstaking research overturned previous recognition that the first black medical doctors to graduate from UCT were Maramoothoo Samy-Padiachy, Cassim Saib and Ralph Lawrence. The trio graduated in 1945.
“One of Effendi’s sisters moved to Turkey in 1952 to escape the apartheid classification but [other family members] were all classified as non-white,” he explained.
Using these racial classifications, Effendi’s cousins were also described as Cape Malay or Cape coloured. But the matter has gone full circle. One of the most prominent family members to receive Turkish citizenship on 24 November was Hesham Neamatullah Effendi, who graduated from UCT in the 1970s.
“I have been guiding the family for many years and eventually we received a positive result in 2020,” said Gençoğlu. “This means a lot to the Ottoman families because after their great-grandfatherʼs death in South Africa in 1880, they became forgotten in Cape Town.”
After the fall of the apartheid regime, families of Turkish origin began to reclaim the “lost aspect” of their identity.
“This took years but eventually they regained this status as people of Turkish descent.”
“This took years but eventually they regained this status as people of Turkish descent,” said Gençoğlu. “They will stay in SA but, like Khoikhoi people in Cape Town today, it is very meaningful for them to finally get … the official recognition.”
The development was also spurred by his research, which revealed the real story of the Bo-Kaap Museum at 71 Wale Street, a city cultural landmark. Released in 2016, this showed that the original property belonged to Ottoman Muslim scholar Mahmud Effendi and not Abu Bakr Effendi, as recorded in the museum’s own history and other archival material.
Gençoğlu undertook two years of research in the Turkish and Cape archives and later published an article about “The forgotten Effendi … and real story of the Bo-Kaap Museum” in history journal New Contree. This resulted in Iziko Museums redesigning the Bo-Kaap Museum, launched with an exhibition in 2019.
“Those events catalysed the Turkish cultural ministry to recognise Turkish heritage in Cape Town,” Gençoğlu said.
Other UCT academic staff are among the Ottoman descendants who have the right to apply for Turkish citizenship, he noted.