The Sudan Studies Conference in South Africa: thinking about personalities.

The conference was not what I had expected. The format was a bit rushed and some sessions might have been better held as discussions rather than formal papers, but there was also something inspiring about the week… and something very very cool! 


It was this: the fact that it took place in South Africa, in a country that many observers see as a miracle of social transformation and at UNISA, a university engaged in the training of the Southern Sudanese government. Thabo Mbeki was there and many of the younger South African participants told me that they really believed that Sudan matters to Africa as a whole. They said Sudan is not just about Sudan, but about Africa too. 


I had never really thought to compare the two countries, despite being in an African studies department dominated by South Africans and those who study the country, but in some ways, the South Africans at UNISA really inspired me and made me wonder about the pan-Africanist project more deeply. 


A Sudanese De Klerk?


One presentation in particular got my attention. Gavin Bradshaw gave a paper on Conflict Transformation and the Future of Sudan, comparing the South African experience with the Sudanese situation. He emphasized that South African liberation involved intensive pre-negotiation and that reconciliation was central to the country’s transformation. In Sudan’s case, the CPA might have been too rushed in comparison and issues of justice were overlooked. In the question session afterwards, Taban Lo Lyong from Juba University made a fascinating point: 


“That year, there was more than one person who won the Nobel Prize. You come from the Mandela University, but there is no De Klerk University. Surely we don’t just need a Mandela but a De Klerk as well. Who will be our unexpected saviour?”


Bradshaw welcomed the comment and asked the audience to figure out who in the NCP represented a Sudanese versions of De Klerk? Who will have their “road to Damascus moment”? Who will negotiate? Who will concede power? Who will listen to pressure? Bradshaw spoke of the need to approach and cultivate this person, show him (or her) that there are other sources of support and legitimacy from which to draw power. 


I have been doing a lot of South African reading since I got back to the Edinburgh library. Primarily I am interested in learning more about Black Economic Empowerment and how successful the government has been in addressing the economic legacies of apartheid, but there is so much more to learn as well.  I am currently reading Mark Gevisser’s biography of Thabo Mbeki: A Legacy of Liberation. I whole heartedly recommend it to anyone interested in the South African story. 


A Sudanese Mbeki?


A common complaint among Southerners living in Khartoum is that the SPLM does not include them in the re-building of Southern Sudan. They tell stories of how they are labelled “Jelaba” when they try to return “home”. They are seen as outsiders or worse, traitors and are informed that they did not earn the spoils of peace because they did not fight in the struggle. I was even told that the Southern government brought in huge numbers of Kenyan and Ugandan teachers, because those in the North are either not competent enough or trusted enough to teach. The language card is often played: Northern educated southern Sudanese grew up in an Arabic speaking educational system; their qualifications are therefore, inappropriate. But one interviewee told me something quite beautiful. He said “What they fail to understand is that we were fighting too. We were fighting to become teachers. We were fighting to become engineers. We were fighting to become doctors. We had our own fight in Khartoum.”  But it seems as though this side of the struggle remains unacknowledged by the SPLM leadership. 


You get the sense that the ANC understood the importance of exile to the struggle. They understood that education was key to liberation. Thabo Mbeki himself was sent away in order to study. Gevisser suggests that even his own father, Govan, who was at the very heart of the movement’s armed wing, the MK, saw that his son was not a soldier but an intellectual:


“I asked Goven Mbeki why he took such a strong line on his son, given that he himself was on MK’s high command and an avid adherent of armed struggle. “I didn’t approve of him joining MK,” he said resolutely, “or of him staying in the country. All the young people were excited about fighting, but we elders knew the other side. We realized not everyone was going to be a soldier.” Perhaps, then, Govan Mbeki’s hard line with his son masked a deeper perceptiveness. He knew enough about Thabo to understand that his destiny was not as a soldier on the barricades but as an intellectual. There was a different world of engagement in the struggle waiting him abroad, one that would suit him far better and take him much farther”. (Gevisser, 2009: 79). 


So we should therefore not just ask who is the Sudanese de Klerk, but who are the Sudanese Mbekis as well. Certainly as the SPLM attempts to transform itself from a rebel military movement into a legitimate political party and government, it needs to make use of these educated “Jelabas” in the North. And as Southern Sudan transforms itself from a battlefield into a functioning country, these teachers, engineers and doctors are needed to get the country going again.


After the conference, Gavin Bradshaw approached me to talk about the Juba version of the Khartoum Student Seminar Series, organized by Lotje de Vries in the South. He said he was involved in training hundreds of young Southerners in order to get them up to the Masters Level. He was dying to find such seminars to stimulate these students outside the classroom. I am glad that the SPLM is now acknowledging the need for education. THIS IS GREAT! But I wonder whether this precludes the inclusion of the educated outsiders who are still waiting for homecoming in Khartoum. Especially if the South becomes independent, what will their futures hold?


You have to ask: Is their exclusion an issue of trust or power? There is another interesting aspect of the Mbeki story that might offer clues. In autumn 1962, a group of young South Africans travelled out of South Africa (in a roundabout way) to Tanzania to be sent abroad to study. Gevisser writes:


“The PAC comrades were given the choice of scholarships in the West. With the exception of Mbeki, however, all the ANC comrades were told they would be going to the Soviet Union and other Eastern European bloc countries. Mbeki did not stay long in Dar-es-Salam: He had been expected at Sussex in early October, and he was already several weeks late. Neither knowing that he had a preexisting scholarship nor understanding why he alone was being sent to the West, Mbeki’s contemporaries in exile harbored resentment about his early departure to Britain was to fester for years. Vincent Mahali believed that the ‘pre-existing scholarship’ story was concocted by the ANC to cover the fact that Thabo was being given ‘special treatment’ because he was Govan’s son, that this released him from the ‘months and even years of deprivation… that most of us ‘commoners’ would have to go through.” The impression would linger, and cast a long shadow over his ambitions” (Gevisser, 2009: 84). 


Gevisser, Mark (2009) A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream. New York: Palgrave, Macmillan.
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