Revolutionary political thought in South Sudan

Once upon a time, South Sudanese exiles in Khartoum—inspired by, among others, Charles Dickens and Malcolm X—had a radical vision for their new country.

Image of voters in Juba, South Sudan on January 9, 2011. Credit: United Nations.

In 2011, South Sudan celebrated its secession from Sudan as a triumph of both “bullets and ballots,” invoking Malcolm X’s call to action in 1964. There is little sense of a revolutionary politics today. Instead, a dominant (bleak, neopatrimonial) analysis of South Sudan describes divided and defensive ethno-local communities manipulated by exploitative and greedy military elites in a battle for control of the oil tap. There is a common idea that there was little emotional content or intellectual substance to South Sudan’s national independence beyond a reactionary resistance to generations of violent colonization.

But this neglects the rich and diverse history of South Sudanese people’s political cultures and projects during the last three civil wars since the 1960s. In Sudan’s capital Khartoum of the 1980s and 1990s, a population of about two million displaced southern and Darfuri residents constructed impoverished but dynamic black suburbs, in which people of all backgrounds engaged in a rich conversation about what Sudanese independence, self-determination, and political community could look like. Men and women of various socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds invested in constructing schools and social centers, rewriting curricula and books, organizing language schools and adult education classes, writing groups, poetry competitions, drama and song groups, and publishing pamphlets and cassettes, graduation certificates and new textbooks.

This political educational work involved extensive rewriting and rethinking of forms of community and collective history in Sudan. Many men (and some women) focused on writing southern and black Sudanese people into longer and wider African histories, including recording their own subaltern history of experience in the civil wars. This history writing was so important that a research methodologies section is included in a self-made vernacular primary school textbook (in Primary 4 Reader, p. 7). This body of work cites everything from Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, to Holt and Daly’s textbook A History of Sudan, and—more commonly—songs, texts, curriculum books, quotations and political speeches, including the speeches of Malcolm X.

The men and women involved in these projects reworked and reframed the political discussions they had in terms of wider black struggles, the position of black people and Africans in the world, critiquing securitized states and the idea of borders, and the wider neoliberal economy of individualizing wealth, inequalities, and vertical hierarchies of patronage and exclusion. Not being able to place yourself in this wider historical and political context was explicitly criticized in these texts, even if this knowledge was traumatic; as a Dinka song Rinydan Junub (“This southern generation”) written in Khartoum in the 1990s says, “being always annoyed makes you a man.”

Through the 1990s and 2000s in Khartoum, people from across the southern and western borderlands of Sudan set out competing (and often incomplete) ideas of what black and/or southern Sudanese futures might and should be. These projects and discussions were part of a brokering of the limits of practical political affiliation–broadly between ideas of specific regional southern self-rule, with the territorial borderlines and parochialisms that this demanded; broader ideas of black Sudanese nationalism, which necessitated a definition of who was included as a legitimate Sudani; and possibly more inclusive or radical ideas of pan-Africanism and communist futures beyond the nation-state. This debate was centered on how to create this conscious and collective Sudani community in practice—and in what shape, and with what exclusions.

This contemporary history evidences a far wider intellectual culture in conflict than the dominant narrative of South Sudan’s civil wars and national “birth” in 2011 allow. These old radical ideas, projects and people still hold significant power, as songs, books and individual intellectuals’ old work are cited on message boards and passed as MP3s and re-photocopied pamphlets. Most of the surviving songwriters and poets and playwrights and teachers I have met are still working. Their work, and the possibilities held in these intellectual cultures, are missing from current discussions around reconciliation and national dialogues. But these older projects of political thought and education might contain useful weight and substance in the continuing and fundamental conversation in South Sudan on what was being fought for, and what political community should and can be built on this history.

Further Reading