As South Africans headed to the polls to choose their leaders—the fifth election since the end of the racist white minority regime—South Sudan leader Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar, were in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to agree on a ceasefire to end the five-month conflict that was triggered by a foiled coup last year.
Like the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) succeeded in a country that had been deeply divided on racial and ethnic lines. The divisions in South Africa did not only exist between the oppressive whites and the black majority but also among black tribes, which occasionally attacked each other. The historical rivalry between the Xhosa and the Zulu tribes had long undermined security and peace in South Africa.
In South Sudan, the struggle for independence had united the predominantly black south against the dominant Arabic north, yet the historical conflicts between the various ethnic groups within South Sudan never disappeared.
Within a year of independence, ethnicity had grandly manifested itself in the way political rewards were distributed in the South Sudan government. The hunger for power, corruption, and ethnic interests hijacked national objectives leading to internal strife within the SPLM.
With increasing pressure, Kiir reshuffled his whole government and centralized all powers. When he accused Machar of leading a foiled coup against his government, a war broke out, leaving over 1.5 million people displaced and many dead.
South Africa’s situation in 1994 was not far different from South Sudan’s current state—poverty, disease, and poor public services were visible in every part of the country. Around 23 million South Africans lacked electricity or adequate sanitation. Twelve million lacked clean water supplies. Two million children were not in school, and a third of the population was illiterate.
Instead of fighting for power, ANC leaders, under the guidance of the late Nelson Mandela, embarked on reconciliatory and transformative government programs with intentions of restoring peace, stability, and growth.
ANC leaders never revenged or waged a war against the oppressive whites as South Sudanese did when they waged a war against north Sudan barely a year after gaining independence. Instead, ANC offered reconciliation, assuring the white South Africans of their safety and protection by the government.
Despite having been victims of the racial regime of the whites, ANC leaders never looked back; they focused on the possible solutions that could heal the wounds inflicted on the innocent blacks by the oppressors. By looking forward, Nelson Mandela managed to gain the support of all tribes and races including the whites. Mandela faced a lot of pressure from his own family, party, and statesmen who preferred revenge to reconciliation.
In 1993, for instance, Mandela was rebuked by his own wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, for accepting the Nobel Prize alongside former apartheid leader F.W. de Klerk. But Mandela knew national peace and unity was better than personal feelings of reprisal. He invested in strengthening political institutions, deepening democracy, and fighting poverty.
South Sudan leaders should have learnt from South Africa’s ANC that leadership calls for making very tough choices and sacrificing personal and ethnic interest for national unity, peace, and development. Instead of fighting for power, Kiir and Machar should put nation interests before their own and find a lasting solution to the ongoing conflict.
They should focus on uniting the South Sudanese, improving public services, and fighting poverty. The recently signed peace agreement between Kiir and Machar holds hope for the return of peace in South Sudan. The two leaders should support a transitional government grounded on promoting unity, peace, and reconciliation the same way ANC did.