Guest Column

South Africa has a duty to help save South Sudan

2017-01-17 12:59
The UN in South Sudan (File, AP).

The UN in South Sudan (File, AP).

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This year, the single most important objective of the African Union is to end the brewing genocide in South Sudan and to help establish strong democratic institutions in this five year old nation.

There is no time to waste. The Sudanese must unite now or perish. Even though the rest of the continent would not say it outright, a mandate has been imposed upon South Africa to lay the foundation for South Sudan's success as a new nation. It is our responsibility to embrace this mandate by developing a plan and strategy to get this country fully structured and fully functional to ultimately end the human suffering. 

One of the dark spots in the conscience of this nation is how we did not do enough to prevent the slaughter of a million people in our sister country of Rwanda. In 1994, the year of the genocide in Rwanda, South Africa was arguably the most powerful country in the world. Not because we had a military arsenal or economic might, but because we had the ear of the world. We could have done something. We could have done everything. We could have refused to go alone into the promised land, and for a minute, we could have taken our eyes off our own looming fortunes and looked yonder, where our African family was drowning in a pool of blood.

Since then however, as a country, we have sought to redeem ourselves. We have covered every square mile of this continent that is conflict ridden, we have negotiated multiple conflict resolutions and our military underwrites many peace deals around our great continent.

Despite all these efforts, unfortunately, another Rwanda is looming right in front of our eyes, and for South Africa to let this happen would be an unforgivable act of betrayal. Human rights organisations, genocide watch groups and the UN secretary-general are warning of a potential genocide in South Sudan, the world's youngest country.

What is actually happening in South Sudan? In December 2013, two years after the founding of the new nation on 9 July 2011, a political power struggle broke out between President Salva Kiir and his former vice-president Riek Machar, as the president accused Machar and ten others of attempting a coup d'état.

Fighting broke out, igniting the South Sudanese Civil War. Ugandan troops were deployed to fight alongside South Sudanese government forces against the rebels. The United Nations has peacekeepers in the country as part of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Numerous ceasefires were mediated by IGAD between the political parties and leaders – in opposition and were subsequently broken. A peace agreement was signed in Ethiopia under threat of UN sanctions for both sides in August 2015. Machar returned to Juba in 2016 and was appointed vice president. Following a second breakout of violence in Juba, Machar was replaced as vice-president and fled the country as the conflict erupted again.

Up to 300 000 people are estimated to have been killed in the war, including notable atrocities such as the 2014 Bentiu massacre. Although both men have supporters from across South Sudan's ethnic divides, subsequent fighting has been communal, with rebels targeting members of Kiir's Dinka ethnic group and government soldiers attacking Nuers. About 3 million people have been displaced in a country of 12 million, with about 2 million internally displaced and another 1 million having fled to neighbouring countries, especially Kenya, Sudan and Uganda.

Former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon accused Kiir for pursuing an ethnically-based strategy to suppress dissent, muzzle the media, exclude significant South Sudanese actors in the peace process and unilaterally implement an agreement to reach elections. Ban said fighting has now spread across the country. At the same time, actions by South Sudanese leaders including Machar and other armed opposition actors are intensifying the conflict and manipulating ethnicity for political gain.

Today, South Sudan stands on the brink of an all-out ethnic civil war, which could destabilise the entire region. Wherever human rights organisations are visiting, people are telling them the country will dissolve into another Rwanda-like situation. While several of the early warning signs of mass atrocities are present, that does not mean it is inevitable. The international community must act now. This includes countries in the region, which guaranteed the peace process but are not sufficiently implementing the necessary steps toward justice and accountability.

We are far from the hope of a new nation that Africa celebrated 5 years ago. The issue of ethnic conflicts however has not been given sufficient attention in the continent and in the world and it is going to continue to manifest if a cultural shift does not ensue and nations and countries will continue to be split in the middle along ethnic lines.

Ethnic conflict is not a given, either in our genes or in our cultures. How then do we account for the atrocities that we have witnessed across the continent. How does this kind of thing happen? How it is that people can be transformed from neighbours into enemies? At the heart of it is always an authoritarian state that consciously defines itself on ethnic lines. 

Liberal states have also not been particularly adept at solving ethnic problems, whether in Canada, United States, South Africa and other liberal countries. John Comaroff sounds a similar note of caution about liberal democracy as he shows how the extraordinary South African turnaround became possible. The system seems to offer hope and human fulfillment to people suffering under despotic regimes, but all too often it disappoints in practice, encouraging a kind of unsatisfying consumerism. That is why thoughtful Africans fear the dislocations of democracy and hope that their democracies will be social movements, not mere guarantors of voting rights.

There is an argument however that the liberal state, in spite of all its problems, is still the best solution for this country. Ethnic conflicts are inherent to the processes of social development, state formation and nation building. The unequal power structure that exists in a state system could kick-off ethnic conflicts. 

The main pre-condition for ethnic conflict is a sense of relative deprivation (real or imaginary) of one group by another. If the conflicts are caused from such deprivation, the solutions must come from power sharing among the various ethnic or other sectarian groups. 

Power sharing, however undesirable and at times unfair, is still the stepping stone towards free and fair elections.

South Sudan must unite now, and implement all power sharing agreements, or perish - there is no time to waste.

- Yonela Diko is a spokesperson for the ANC in the Western Cape.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.


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