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Contemporary Media Narratives on South Sudan

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Image credit: Ammer, Wiener Zeitung, Austria.

By Bonnie Bates.

Prior to independence in 2011, South Sudan was labeled the world’s first “pre-failed state” (Howden “Failed state”, Moszynski). Since that time, each step taken by the new country has been met with judgmental editorials smacking of paternalism and prejudice (Natsios, Tran “Failed”). The 2013-2014 South Sudanese political conflict between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar inspired a fresh journalistic chorus, bemoaning the post-independence retrogress (Allison “Mistake”, Popham). Some have questioned the merits of South Sudan’s creation, calling for the baby to be thrown out with the bathwater in castigating the South Sudanese as unready for the challenges of independent nationhood (Allison “Failing”, Howden “Fell apart”).

The current political conflict was quickly framed by the international media – especially the British media – as the latest African ‘tribal’ war (Gettlemen “Born in unity”, Green). This trope, and its companion narratives of civil war and genocide, dominated media coverage of South Sudan into 2014 (Kushkush, Van Dijken, Smith “Death of dream”). Such a facile treatment manipulates the history of the world’s youngest nation to fit a constructed narrative of African dysfunction. The use of easy tropes belies the history behind the current conflict and the challenges involved in building a new nation out of the detritus of colonialism.

Such contemporary manipulations perpetuate myths that are grounded in neo-colonial assumptions, and serve to paint a one-dimensional portrait of the South Sudanese; one that denies their agency and independence. Omitted from this narrative is a deeper understanding of the history of South Sudan and its people, as well as the historic grievances embedded in ethnic identity. South Sudan is a very heterogeneous nation of over 60 languages and nearly as many ethnic groups and clans that have grown from centuries of migration, intermarriage, and reactions to foreign interventions (Kramer, 145-150). Employing the ‘tribal’ trope ignores the varied and dynamic evolution of ethnic identity in South Sudan. ‘Tribe’ is not only a derogatory term; it does not adequately describe the nuanced identities created by the people of South Sudan, nor does it recognize their agency in doing so.

Conflict has been a leitmotif of much of South Sudan’s history. To understand why requires moving past tired tropes to the underlying factors; including how foreign forms of hegemony and power – religion, slavery and colonialism – have been imposed on the people of South Sudan. The impacts of these forces endure, inflamed by the prejudicial media coverage of the current political conflict.

Religion has played a significant role in shaping identity and creating disunion in Sudan and South Sudan. The simplistic narrative describes the Sudanese as Muslim, the South Sudanese as Christian, and therefore the two groups do not get along (Ahmad, Hickman). Not only inaccurate, this narrative ignores how religion has been used as a force of oppression and occupation (Malick “Egypt’s violence”), feeding centuries of slavery and British colonial policies. More recently, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir’s forced Islamization and Arabization has exploited these legacies, furthering divisions and discord (Meredith, 588-593).

Such a history of occupation and ownership has also served to develop internal racism, with some Sudanese referring to southerners as ‘abd’’ (black, slave). Northern Sudanese generally do not consider themselves African; for them that term defines an inferior darker-skinned South Sudanese and is often seen as synonymous with slave, The Other. The tensions created from the legacy of slavery endure, as lighter-skinned Sudanese are considered to be slave owners and occupiers by many South Sudanese. (Malick “Paler shade”, Power and the Pain).

Language and ethnic identity are very powerful things. The legacy of slavery and occupation is alive and fueling a perceived power imbalance between Sudanese and South Sudanese. This myth is promoted by both the Sudanese and western media, castigating the South Sudanese as inferior and lacking competence to support independence (Howden “Fell apart”, The Guardian “Not yet a state”, The Independent “Conflict predictable”). This current western hegemony supports modern forms of occupation, such as ruinous development loans and foreign intervention and control over southern resources. The manipulative use of such tropes may satiate western appetites for oil, but it continues to starve the South Sudanese of their capacity to build their country on their terms.

To dismiss historic conflicts and a contemporary political struggle between two rivals as ‘tribal warfare’ is not only racist; it perpetuates stereotypes of the inferior South Sudanese – the slave, The Other. Conveniently ignored in this narrative is the story of why Kiir and Machar are rivals, their complicated history as members of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army and the motivations behind their actions (South Sudan and the media of conflict). A more honest account would require western media to recognize Kiir and Machar (and the South Sudanese) as complex, multi-dimensional human beings; as equals and not slaves to empire.

Providing a critical analysis of leadership is certainly a role for the media, but it must be done responsibly and without prejudice. Utilizing the ‘tribal’ trope denies agency and nuance, telling the reader nothing; thereby encouraging the use of assumptions and stereotypes that are often themselves based on misinformation and tropes. Franz Fanon reminds us that “there is extraordinary power in the possession of a language” (Fanon, 2). In speaking of Africa and Africans, it’s about time that African power – in all its complications, nuances and forms – is acknowledged, and that tired tropes are retired once and for all.

Bonnie Bates is a Masters student in History and African Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa.

Media References

Ahmad, Amir. “Ending Sudan’s identity crisis.” The Guardian (10 June, 2011). n.pag. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.

Allison, Simon. “South Sudan: a country failing to thrive after euphoria of independence.” The Guardian (26 November, 2012). n.pag. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.

____________. “Was South Sudan a mistake?” The Guardian (8 January, 2014). n.pag. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

Dowden, Richard. “South Sudan’s leaders have learnt nothing from 50 years of independence.” (22 January, 2014). n.pag. Web. 2 Feb. 2014

Gettleman, Jeffrey. “Born in unity, South Sudan is torn again.” New York Times (12 January, 2012). n.pag. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.

_______________. “Raid on rivals in South Sudan shows escalating violence.” New York Times (4 January, 2012). n.pag. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.

Green, Andrew. “South Sudan: ‘independence is not as beautiful as we thought’.” The Guardian (9 July, 2013). n.pag. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

Greste, Peter. “Thinking outside the ethnic box in S. Sudan.” Al-Jazeera (28 December, 2013). n.pag. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

Hickman, Leo. “South Sudan – the birth of a new republic.” The Guardian (7 July, 2011). n.pag. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.

Howden, Daniel. “A failed state before it’s born? Inside the capital of the world’s next nation.” The Independent (7 January, 2011). n.pag. Web. 9 Mar. 2014.

_____________. “How Hollywood cloaked South Sudan in celebrity and fell for the big lie.” The Guardian (28 December, 2013). n.pag. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

_____________. “South Sudan factional fighting leaves hundreds feared dead.” The Guardian (17 December, 2013). n.pag. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.

_____________. “South Sudan: the state that fell apart in a week.” The Guardian (23 December, 2013). n.pag.Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

Kushkush, Isma’il. “Political strife in South Sudan sets off ethnic violence.” New York Times (21 December, 2013). n.pag. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

Loyuong, Tongun Lo. “Understanding the problem is half the solution in South Sudan.” Gurtong (31 January, 2014). n.pag. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

Malick, Nesrine. “A paler shade of black.” The Guardian (5 March, 2008). n.pag. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.

_____________. “Egypt’s sectarian violence.” The Guardian (13 January, 2010). n.pag. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.

Moszynski, Peter. “Southern Sudan: starting from scratch.” The Guardian (20 January, 2011). n.pag. Web. 9 Mar. 2014.

Natsios, Andrew. “Save South Sudan from itself.” New York Times (25 December, 2013). n.pag. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.

Popham, Peter. “South Sudan: Are we helping to create a country or merely creating ravenous clients for an army of western experts and consultants?” The Independent (26 December, 2013). n.pag. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.

Smith, David. “South Sudan: the death of a dream.” The Guardian (20 January, 2014). n.pag. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

Stirton, Brent. “Child Marriage: South Sudan.” Human Rights Watch World Report (2014). n.pag. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

Tisdell, Simon. “South Sudan president sacks cabinet in power struggle.” The Guardian (24 July, 2013). n.pag. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

Tran, Mark. “Explainer: violence in South Sudan.” The Guardian (10 January, 2012). n.pag. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.

_________. “South Sudan failed by misjudgment of international community, says UN chief.” The Guardian (22 January, 2014). n.pag. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

Unknown. “Pre-failed state.” New York Times (12 April, 2010). n.pag. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.

Unknown. “South Sudan and the media of conflict.” Al-Jazeera (18 January, 2014). n.pag. Web video. 2 Feb. 2014.

Unknown. “The conflict in South Sudan was all too predictable.” The Independent (23 December, 2013). n.pag. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.

Unknown. “The Power and the Pain.” Al-Jazeera (19 February, 2014). n.pag. Web video. 19 Feb. 2014.

Van Dijken, Klaas. “South Sudan ravaged by ethnic violence.” Al-Jazeera (3 February, 2014). n.pag. Web. 2 Mar. 2014.


Research References

Birmingham, David. The Decolonization of Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995. Print.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. The Nuer: A description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. Print.

Fanon, Franz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove/Atlantic, Inc. 2008. Print

Hale, Sondra. Gender Politics in Sudan: Islamism, Socialism, and the State. Boulder: Westview Press, 1996. Print.

Kramer, Robert S., Richard A. Lobban Jr., Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban. Historical Dictionary of the Sudan. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2013. Print.

Kwarteng, Kwasi. Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World. New York: PublicAffairs, 2011. Print.

Massoud, Mark Fathi. Law’s Fragile State: Colonial, Authoritarian, and Humanitarian Legacies in South Sudan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print.

Meredith, Martin. The Fate of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence. New York: PublicAffairs, 2011. Print.

Ruay, Deng D. Akol. The Politics of Two Sudans: The South and the North 1821-1969. Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 1994. Print.

Shillington, Kevin. History of Africa. Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012. Print.

About Bonnie Bates (13 Articles)
Currently working towards a Masters in History and African Studies at Carleton University, my areas of interest include North African and Saharan history, gender, identity, culture, politics and language.

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