New Internationalist

An almost there kind of day

Saturday was a day of two expectations, two wants – or, rather, needs. A mixed day; I might say nus-nus or half-half – kind of an ‘almost there’ expression. An almost there expression for a day that in a way is very much all about being almost there.

The voting has been sedate to say the least, boasts of starting in the line at 5 am were not empty, even if they have proved to be a totally unnecessary precaution. So in the early morning glow, just before the sun really starts to burn, a little after 8 am, everyone finally gets to vote. Chiefs and matriarchs first.I It’s only fair – they’ve waited the longest. That is, not this morning (although they have been here since very early) but for the best part of their lives in many cases. I think that the joy or relief on the final fall of the ballot has two roots. For some it is clearly a very personal moment, a chance to remember some part of the war –probably a person, maybe a place. But for others the memory is further away; for these voters it’s an end-note to a collective drive for self determination, a task which is accepted in its absolute and now will be finished. Finished to the great relief and joy of everyone here.

For finished it certainly will be. In a local polling centre (as far as I can calculate) the turnout is close to 98 per cent; the South Sudan Referendum Commission has announced that nationwide the vital 60 per cent benchmark that is needed for the process to be valid has been passed. And no one expects these votes to be for unity. This is why people smile as they hold up their index fingers; proudly marked with the indelible proof of a vote cast. Something many people here are calling ‘the last bullet’; as in ‘I’m going to go a fire the last bullet this afternoon’. Many cries of ‘Bye-Bye’ (after the open palm which serves as the option for independence on the ballot itself) as people leave the little tented booth, and are shown how to fold the paper correctly for the last time.

I started by talking of two expectations, the first has just been completed. After  decades of fighting and many years of posturing and not-so-veiled threats, the ‘big men’ have finally got it to together; probably largely due to the focus of the wider international community, it appears this time that everyone really is tired of war. The time of the second expectation has now only just begun: this is the real expectation, the true want. The desire of a normal life, free of the troubles that have plagued this region for almost the last half century, and a life in which people might reasonably expect their quality of life to increase. For on its independence Southern Sudan (or whatever the name may be) will be a desperately poor country. It’s not even so much a question of development; rather, in many areas, a challenge of creation.

This expectation lies on the shoulders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLA), the governing party and the only real political force in the country. It is, to say the least, quite a challenge. But now, when independence comes (as it surely must, barring any last minute catastrophe), this is a challenge that people will expect the government to not only take on but succeed at, and quickly. A truly daunting task, people will expect real change when the map is redrawn; any continued use of the northern government as an excuse for personal failings will cut no ice with voters here. This is made all the more pressing by the fact that the SPLA (the army of the political movement), is remembered not only for finally ‘getting’ independence, but also for some of the burdens it placed on communities. In war, rebel groups as well as your children must be fed. Hardship (far too meagre a word) was accepted at the time, largely out of necessity, but now people expect and demand promises to be delivered upon.

Perhaps it’s disingenuous to separate these two ‘wants’ as the firsts begets the other and people are voting both as a first stride for new development and change and a final step; a final step in what many political posters tell us is ‘the long walk to freedom’. So a day of two halves, nus-nus: first half completed; second can now really start.


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