Sudan: opportunities for new social movements

Submitted by Matthew on 9 February, 2011 - 10:32

Tim Flatman, who has recently returned from the region, concludes a series of three articles about South Sudan.

The process of referendum has had positive consequences for grassroots independent political organisation in South Sudan.

People had to come together to demand separation for themselves (as political parties were by law banned from doing so). It has been the central demand of many groups whose purpose was previously primarily social, those traditional structures which still exist, etc while specific forms of association have also sprung up to fill the political gap.

Southern Sudan Youth Forum for Referendum is a key example — holding rallies for separation with thousands in attendance, organising through schools, town centres, villages, etc. Their chair told me that after the referendum they will continue as an independent civil society organisation campaigning for open, transparent democracy. So too Youth For Separation. These kinds of organisation will be beneficial for continuing to open up political debate by providing alternative viewpoints to those in government without being direct electoral competition.

In the North, formal trade unions are controlled by the government, and in the South they barely exist. However, Southern Sudan Workers’ Association, run exclusively by a handful of former exiles who are all unpaid, has begun the hard task of federalising those associations which do exist. This includes, for example, the boda-boda drivers’ association in Juba, teachers’ associations, bus drivers, and so on. They have tried to inaugurate a mass membership structure by forming a jobs agency under workers’ control which helps members find jobs, and by charging a token fee for membership of SSWA.

However, this means they are reliant on donations rather than member contributions and need support from international partners so they do not begin to rely on sources of funding external to the labour movement who would seek to control their operation. It also means they have no systematic organisation in workplaces, instead having individual membership spread across separate workplaces and sectors.

This in turn has placed severe limits on the ability to organise collective action.


There can be no perfect labour movement in the circumstances (if there ever can) and building links to indigenous organisation is better than imposing our own, culturally alien, organisations.

SSWA are calling for solidarity visits from trade unionists from developed economies. They understand the need to make sure South Sudan’s new constitution does not hamper emerging trade unions, and would appreciate legal advice on what laws they should be lobbying for. Used technological equipment would also be a major boost.

There is also the possibility of direct solidarity with constituent associations (and those who are not yet affiliated or may choose for whatever reason not to be affiliated to SSWA) like teachers’ associations. I was told by several teachers that they are often not paid for months at a time and in many cases their training is inadequate. Direct links between teachers’ unions here and there could help.

Due to the extent which the SPLM permeates through the whole of Southern society, their status as a party of liberation and one which the Southern people broadly trusted in April 2010 to guarantee the referendum, and their broadly social democratic politics with more radical elements and a crudely Marxist past mixed in, socialists should be critically supportive of the SPLM.

We should keep open the possibility of formal ties to the Labour Party depending on how the political situation plays out — whether there are splits along ethnic lines, whether they live up to promises to “bring the towns to the villages” and continue to be seen by the poorest as their party, and how open they stay to the furthering of democracy.

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