South Sudan’s dream of peace is still within reach

Both sides of the conflict have to put aside their differences and approach peace talks with honesty

The United Nations describes the situation as the worst food crisis in the world, writes Archbishop Tutu. [AFP]

With the world’s media squarely focused on conflict in the Holy Land and Ukraine, the ghastly suffering of the people of South Sudan goes virtually unreported.

Ten thousand people killed over the past seven months. One-and-a-half million forced to flee their homes. A country on the brink of famine.

This week the people of South Sudan will wait simply for a conversation to begin again, one that may lead their country out of months of extreme suffering – or maybe not.

Peace talks are set to resume in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, hosted by the East Africa regional body the International Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD).

Despite a ceasefire agreement, President Salva Kiir and his former vice president and rival, Riek Machar, have kept silent for weeks while conflict has continued to rage. The leaders of the warring factions are now left with just ten days to formulate a plan for a transitional government of national unity before IGAD’s next deadline, ten days to pave a way out of suffering and misery for their people.

Seven months ago, following political fallout between Kiir and Machar, violence engulfed the newly independent country.

The consequences have been profoundly brutal. Ethnicity has been mobilised for political and military purposes, pitting communities against each other and tearing apart the social fabric of the country.

Communities have been so consumed by the conflict that they have been unable to plant crops for food. Markets where trade recently thrived have been laid to ruin. The United Nations describes the situation as the worst food crisis in the world. It is a crisis that may be declared a famine unless immediate action is taken by Kiir and Machar to find a way to work with each other – for all the people of South Sudan.

If they think working together is impossible, they need only consider the recent history of my own country, South Africa, where former bitter enemies established a government of national unity and jointly laid apartheid to waste.

It was possible, in South Africa, because of the calibre of an extraordinary cadre of leaders, epitomised by Nelson Mandela. Mandela understood that magnanimity, grace and leadership were inextricably intertwined. In former President FW de Klerk, he found a willing negotiating partner. They had little in common, they did not always agree – and neither did their supporters – but they rose above themselves and narrow party political positions. Together, they received Nobel Peace Prizes. South Africa held its first democratic election, peacefully. Some called it “miraculous”.

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If it was possible in South Africa, it is possible in South Sudan. If it was possible for Mandela and de Klerk – and the soldiers under their command – it is possible for Kiir and Machar.

Of course, South Africa did not achieve its peaceful transition on its own. Sustained political, moral and economic pressure by the international community contributed enormously to getting the negotiations going.

The situation in South Sudan is crying out to the international community for help. For support for the talks, for assistance in averting a growing humanitarian crisis – for guidance in ensuring that the peace process has the right outcomes for the people of South Sudan.

Regional governments can anticipate receiving increasing numbers of refugees. They should put aside their differences to support the bigger picture – a peaceful settlement.

I remember well the joy that came with South Sudan’s independence just a few years ago – a powerful moment brimming with the hopes and the dreams of a prosperous and peaceful nation. I visited South Sudan as it celebrated its first year of independence. The people I met with were hopeful that the long and hard-fought road to peace would now lead to schools, roads, hospitals – and a healthy and prosperous future.

That dream is still within reach, but both sides need to approach these talks with the honesty and earnestness that are essential to lay the groundwork for success.

A commitment to discussion can always overcome strife and struggle, no matter how great. Reconciliation is the fruit of dialogue and forgiveness, and will lead to healing and moving on from the past. It is a conversation that begins with Kiir and Machar and should go on to embrace all of South Sudan’s people.

God is weeping because people were made for inter-dependence and love. Hatred is not a natural condition; it is manufactured and propagated by people. It is a condition that can be turned on its head by good leaders.

The humanitarian needs are almost overwhelming. Of the 1.5 million people forced from their homes, 100 000 still seek protection in UN bases, and many more lack adequate protection from violence, and access to food, sanitation and water.

If South Sudan’s leaders fail to reach out to each other and restore peace – if they fail to comprehend that our shared humanity is our greatest gift – they will forever bear the burden of this growing human disaster.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a Nobel Peace laureate and supporter of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. He is also an Honorary Member of The Elders.