Southern Sudan: starting to build social movements

Submitted by Matthew on 2 February, 2011 - 10:18

In the first complete results of a referendum, 99% of South Sudanese have voted to secede from the north. Tim Flatman recently spent three months in South Sudan and continues a series of articles on the future of a new country, set to become independent in July.

Jobs, working rights, public services and control of resources are the current demands of southerners.

They are important not only in themselves, not only because they impact on the environment in which social movements operate, but also because they are a precondition for further political organisation. And implementing separation takes priority over every other issue. But there is also a psychology that separation will give Southerners permission to develop their own country, including developing political organisation.

One of the reasons I am using the label "social movements" instead of referring to a working class, labour movement, trade unions or even agricultural classes is that most of South Sudan is starting from a blank slate in terms of economic development.

For many, economic relations over the last 50 years of war cannot even be classified as subsistence. Survival through harsh years of war has been ensured by scavenging for roots and leaves. The collective memory of how to cultivate has evaporated in areas where successive generations have been forced to flee; often there is no point producing anything, as it may be destroyed before there is chance to reap the benefits.

A frustrated returnee involved in trying to build a proto-trade union federation told me that the concept of collective action is culturally alien and that there was hard work ahead to embed the benefits of associations in public consciousness. This is made even more difficult because nearly all associations that sprung up during the war have clear ties to the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).

It is too easy to characterise the SPLM as a domineering influence (such thinking led the West to support splits which resulted in hundreds of thousands of Southerners losing their lives in the mid-90s); the SPLM was the only political organisation known by most Southern Sudanese during the war and its setting up of civil administrations, youth leagues, etc, in the "New Sudan" (liberated areas) rather than leaving military hierarchies in control was a welcome approach. But now most associations have formal or informal ties with the SPLM, with implications for the level of political debate.

So too there is a deference to authority and legitimation of hierarchy that is surely related to the high degree of participation in the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army during the war. This deference is only strengthened by the lack of available jobs, the informal nature of much work and the mechanism of patronage as a key means of securing work. For example, I witnessed government officials wait hours for permission from management rather than make trivial decisions on their own.

Further complicating factors include high levels of fear and suspicion resulting from war traumatisation; anyone you don’t know intimately is suspect as they could have been bribed by the North as infiltrators or to sow division between Southerners.

Recent unity between Southerners is commonly regarded as being based on the necessity of fighting a common enemy and guaranteeing the referendum. (However, broadening of the SPLM, church growth, reconciliation measures, peacebuilding between communities, recent inclusion of opposition political parties and military pardons from the Government of South Sudan have also played their part. So too division was based on actions of the Government of Sudan which may now be less prevalent.) Ensuring a transition to multi-party democracy which does not see parties split down ethnic lines is regarded by most without a direct stake in the government as virtually impossible, but crucial.

Nonetheless, there are reasons to hope these conditions making political organisation a challenge are changing. For instance separation makes political association more culturally relevant, as Southerners see a new set of political challenges as immediate.

Southerners are already highly politicised — the forms war has taken in the South means a high degree of political awareness has been crucial for survival. Knowing who to trust, who you can trust now but might not be able to trust in a few months, and understanding the intentions of your allies and enemies has been a matter of life and death for 50 years. Referendum is also seen as a matter of life and death and so conversations, for example, about the political leanings of particular diplomats and the structures they work in in their home countries were common even amongst people who had no education or personal resources.

Next week: expressing solidarity