Being a history student here in Juba is highly appropriate at the moment. The phrase ‘historic moment’ is being happily overused across the international press, and people in the bus yesterday morning were talking about a ‘new history’ for South Sudan.
The Citizen, Juba Post and all other local newspapers have run potted histories of 1955 to 2011; yesterday’s Citizen editorial notes that ‘you will have history to narrate to your children.’ The Southern Eye published a two-page chronology of Southern history since 1870, ‘so that past mistakes are not repeated’; the history begins with the idea that Southerners were independent, ‘led a normal life before the entry of foreigners onto their territory’, and have now been re-emancipated. The church service at All Saints I went to this morning spent most of the service in historical speeches.
This emphasis by the state and its new citizenry in South Sudan isn’t new. Jok Madut Jok, as under-secretary for culture, has spoken of his ambitious plans for museums and memorials. President Salva Kiir yesterday said that the flag of the Republic of Sudan, just lowered, would not be given back to President Bashir, but kept and archived as part of South Sudan’s history.
The emotion and importance of current events makes the exaltation of historical memorialisation, and the repetition of one long, progressive journey towards liberation and independence since 1955, quite understandable. What will be interesting is whether the current centrality of a unifying, ideologically homogenous (and therefore dubious) ‘South Sudan’ history translates into cultural and historical memorials and museums, the final archiving of Juba’s central Equatorial papers – dating back to the Condominium – and most particularly into a more open discussion of alternative stories of the last fifty years, including dissenting voices, divisions, the debates over unity and the inclusion of opposition. As has been noted about the political uses of Eritrean history since their independence in 1993, a state monopoly on a homogenous, politicised history does not necessarily survive the honeymoon period of independence.