During my recent seven weeks visit to the United States, I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to connect with, engage and learn from a Fellow from South Sudan about the ongoing conflict in her country. I was humbled by this experience as it revealed to me how little I and many of us in South Africa know about what is really happening in other countries up and down the continent. The story of South Sudan is one that penetrated my conscience deeply and by the end of our Fellowship, I resolved that I would play my part, however small, in bringing attention to the plight of the South Sudanese.
It has been just over a year since the signing of a peace agreement between two warring factions in South Sudan in which parties agreed to have a government of national unity and to create strong transitional institutions. This agreement has proven difficult to implement and has seen the country enter into a deeper conflict than ever before. Only a few days ago, it was reported that sacked former First Vice President Dr. Riek Machar had gone into exile in the Democratic Republic of Congo after clashes between soldiers protecting him and those protecting the President. The situation in South Sudan is now urgent and the recent developments have convinced me that we all need to stand up and try to put an end to this before we are faced with another Rwanda. In particular, I want to challenge South Africa to step up.
The Fellow I alluded to earlier is someone who has certainly tried to play her part in building a better South Sudan. She is a dedicated activist; human rights advocate and served as a Judge in South Sudan until a few years ago. My call for South Africa to step up is not intended to criticise our government because as I have learned from this Fellow, South Africa has played a crucial role in South Sudan since the country gained independence. She has expressed how grateful she and many people in South Sudan are to South Africa for investing in assisting the country to build democratic institutions and by training correctional services personnel like her when she was afforded the chance to train as a Judge in Pretoria and to attend some of our universities to study South African models.
Indeed, South Africa has a longstanding history with this region because as far back as 16 years ago, we entered into a trilateral partnership with Germany and Southern Sudan to provide training in various democracy building areas. With this article, I aim to implore the South African government to do more.
First, I would like for my fellow South Africans to appreciate how desperate and dangerous the situation in South Sudan really is. Consider these few facts:
1. In July, it was reported that rape is being used as a weapon of war in South Sudan;
2. Human rights agencies estimate that 5 million people are in need of food aid and many children in South Sudan are severely malnourished;
3. Children are being displaced from their families;
4. The unity government of South Sudan is unstable and has undergone numerous reshuffles in the past few months as a result of factions within the leadership.
This is but a glimpse of the deteriorating situation in South Sudan which I don’t believe I could ever adequately capture on paper. What I do know is we need to act now. During our darkest days, we expected other African nations to come to our aid and now it is our turn to do the same.
Last week, the United Nations Security Council voted to send an additional 4000 peacekeepers to Juba but the South Sudanese government has rejected this. Chief amongst their concerns according to Ambassador Akuei Bona Mawal is that the UN did not seek their consent before taking such resolution and they believe this could signal a return to a colonialism of a different kind.
From this, it is clear to me that Africa needs to step up and South African has a key role to play in achieving this.
In Washington DC, I participated in various meetings and discussions related to conflict resolution and peace and security matters on the continent. Here, I was involved in gripping discussions with young leaders from other countries including from Nigeria, which added to my perspective on terrorism particularly against the backdrop of Boko Haram. One of our discussions was around conflict resolution and conflict management. We agreed that often, we do not place much emphasis on the latter. This, I believe is what has led to the crisis in South Sudan.
I was also encouraged by these discussions as many participants wanted to learn about how South Africa managed to put an end to last year’s gruesome xenophobic attacks. What I got out of this experience is that our fellow Africans expect us and other powerful countries on the continent to act in times of difficulty. One of the principles of South African foreign policy is non-interference in the internal affairs of another state. This emanates from the idea that we must respect the sovereignty of other states and should not take decisions about them without their consent. I agree with this but we also need to understand that this does not mean we shouldn’t do anything. South Africa needs to build a coalition with other African states, including South Sudan to finally put an end to this conflict. To be clear: the people of South Sudan need to be agents of the change they want to see, we must not substitute for them but we must support them.
How do we do this? This is a complex question and there are no ‘quick fix’ answers. In times of conflict, there is no perfect solution because you have to balance interests and weigh risks. South African and the African Union have long spoken about “African solutions to African problems”; well it is now show time. South Africa needs to immediately call on the African Union to deploy the African Standby Force (ASF) to South Sudan without delay. This needs to happen with agreement from South Sudan. I know some might argue that the ASF is nowhere near ready to confront such a difficult situation but I would argue that this is the best time to test that readiness.
In October and November of last year, the ASF trained troops in a mock battle at the South African National Defence Force combat training centre in the Northern Cape and with South Sudan; we are now presented with a real-life opportunity to test our own strength. If not, when will we ever be ready? According to the Constitution of the African Union, the ASF can be deployed in three instances: war crimes, genocide and gross human rights violations. The situation in South Sudan has potential to escalate into the first two instances and I believe there is ample evidence that the third instance is already present. There is simply no excuse.
We also need to make sure that nobody feels left out of this process because this feeling of not being consulted is what has resulted in opposition to UN intervention. We need to work together with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development in recognition of some of their efforts on this issue and to try to find common areas of collaboration.
We need to be very clear about what our mission would be in South Sudan: to help the country implement the peace agreement entered into in August last year. This agreement would see a government of national unity in place with the view of holding general elections in 2018. The ASF must be deployed to ensure a peaceful transition from the current conflict back to a more stable environment and to protect civilians. South Africa is best positioned to achieve this: we peacefully exchanged power following the 1994 elections and we also successfully had a government of national unity under President Mandela until it peacefully ended.
South Africa also needs to demonstrate that indeed, we consider children’s rights to be paramount. Our government needs to negotiate with the South Sudanese to allow Child Protection Advisers from South Africa to work directly with children during this time of conflict. We have the resources and ability to do this and so we must.
One of the crucial steps of the peace making process is raising awareness. Democratic governments need to respond when placed under pressure by their own citizens. This piece is my first attempt to conscientise all of you about this crisis and I hope that together, we will make use of other platforms to spur our government into further action. Please help #SaveSouthSudan.
Mondli Zondo is a 2016 Mandela Washington Fellow and he writes in his personal capacity.