The Working Class of South Sudan Indicate Another World is possible

South Sudan has been in the news recently due to a claimed coup attempt, major mutinies in the army and ethnic clashes.  But the working class in both the public and private sectors has demonstrated its ability to unite against the corrupt governing elite and local companies.

After a 30 year war, South Sudan gained independence in 2011, but disputes with Sudan its northern neighbour continued, particularly over the export of oil through the oil pipe lines that run through Sudan. There are also arguments over the boarder between the two countries, especially over the oil-rich area of Abyei and support by each government for rebels in the other’s territories.

The President of South Sudan, Salva Kirr has opted to appease the Sudanese president and so, he hopes, gain enough from oil exports to win the next elections due in 2015.  As a result, Omer Bashir has survived the major demonstrations that erupted last September in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.

The southern government has accepted oil transit fees of almost 15 times the global rate and so oil exports started again last June after being stopped for 18 months. But government workers were still not to be paid their allowances. These were stopped as part of the austerity measures introduced to cope with the oil shut-down.  In contrast the banks were paid their interest and some of the loans, taken out to make up for the loss of 95% of the government’s revenue, have already been paid.

In addition, the South Sudanese President has in fact given up the struggle over the region of Abyei where almost all the local people recently voted to join South Sudan. Aid has also been stopped to Sudanese rebels allowing the Sudanese army to retake more territory.

These policies are very unpopular with the people of South Sudan and it was moves against Salva Kirr’s main opponents which ignited the current crisis.  This has been described as an ethnic dispute between the Dinka, the largest group in South Sudan, and the Nuer the second largest group. However, the 11 opposition politicians arrested at the beginning of the current turmoil came from six different ethnic groups including the Dinka.

Like in Nigeria, it is only a small corrupt elite which benefits from the oil wealth of South Sudan.  The vast majority of the population suffer terrible poverty. This has been made worse by the recent killings of thousands of people and the tens of thousands who have left their homes to seek refuge.  But again like in Nigeria, it is the organised working class of South Sudan that provides hope that another world is possible.

Strikers at the country’s universities, especially the main University of Juba, have succeeded in getting at least some of their allowances re-instated.  Strikes at the main mobile company, Vivacell also ensured that the workers demands were taken seriously by the company and the government.  The South Sudan Workers Trade Union Federation is gradually organising many sectors of the economy and its General Secretary, Nyuon Janguan is working hard to extend its influence.  Below Drew Povey provides the background to these strikes and an interview with Comrade Janguan.


Juba University academic staff strike over allowances

Academic staff at the University of Juba organised a strike for two weeks from Monday 7th October 2013. They were able to win a promise that some of their allowances would be paid in their salaries for October.  As a result, the strike has been suspended for four weeks to ensure that these promises are kept.


Main entrance to the University of Juba

In January 2012, the Government of South Sudan ordered the end of oil exports through Sudan due to the level of transit fees that were being demanded.  As a result, the Government of South Sudan lost most of its income. From July 2012, it introduced ‘austerity measures’ and significantly reduced the salaries of many public sector workers by reducing their allowances.

The austerity cuts, for instance, reduced the net salary of an assistant professor from 5,700 South Sudan pounds to only SSP3,600 (around $850).

In October last year, the Ministry of Labor announced that some allowances would be re-introduced for lower grade civil servants, the army, organized forces and public universities, among others. But the allowances for academic staff of the University of Juba have not been paid for 14 months.

The lecturers strike was co-ordinated with other public universities across the country. “John Garang Memorial University of Science and Technology (Bor) and the University of Bahr El Ghazal are also on strike due to the same issue and the other public universities are also in solidarity with us,” said Edward Momo, vice president of the Academic Staff Association at the University of Juba.

The demands of the Academic Staff Association were that the allowances were to be paid in full with their salaries from October 2013.  In addition, they wanted an agreement on how their lost pay would be re-paid to them.

Oil production and exports started again in April 2013 after an agreement on the level of transit fees to be paid.  The Government of South Sudan has so far received about $1.3 billion, of this more than $300 million has been paid to Sudan in transit fees and more than $230 million has been used to repay loans.  However, the Government is not planning to pay the full allowances to its workers until at least January next year.

So the government of the newly independent South Sudan is paying millions to its former oppressors and further millions to the banks, but the poorly paid workers are expected to wait at least another three months before they again receive their full allowances. Also there is some doubt whether they will ever be paid their lost allowances.

The lecturers at the University of Juba were right to strike and they will soon receive some of their allowances (but not the largest, housing).  It was encouraging that lecturers across some of the other public universities were able to join the strike.  They were also supported by the students, for example, students at Juba held a demonstration, walking from the University to parliament to hand in a letter of support for their lecturers

The lecturers and other workers at the University of Juba are preparing to organise a proper trade union.  This should strengthen their position, especially if all the workers at the University combine in one union.  The lecturers are only about a quarter of the staff at the university and so will be in a stronger position if they unite with the non-teaching staff.

Strikes at Vivacell, the Main Mobile Company

The workers at Vivacell, the main mobile company in South Sudan have suffered significant grievances for at least four or five years.  But it was only with the strikes from September of this year that they were taken seriously by the company or the government.

A 10 person committee was elected, a list of 23 points was developed and a strike organised on 16th September 2013.  Immediately a senior government official intervened and appealed for the workers to go back to work and give the company time to solve their problems.

However, little progress seemed to take place beyond the company offering workers only a ridiculous SSP50 ($12) extra airtime each month and SSP100 ($24) increase in their transportation allowance.


So on Thursday 7th November the workers again went on strike – this time for a week.  Then the Minister of Public Service promised to establish a committee to look into their demands. Crucially he promised to provide data to compare their terms and conditions with workers at the other mobile companies.  This time the workers were supported by senior officials from the South Sudan Workers Trade Union Federation (SSWTUF) and they felt that the minister was speaking reasonably.  They believed that compared to other companies their salaries and conditions were poor and so this exercise would greatly improve their bargaining position.


Chair of Vivacell mobile network, Pierre Fattouch

Vivacell is mainly owned by Pierre Fattouch from Lebanon, but is a quarter owned by the ruling party in South Sudan, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM).  The government has given the company many benefits and allows it to operate tax-free.

Despite this, one of the key complaints of the workers is that local South Sudanese workers are discriminated against.  Workers from other East African counties receive much higher salaries, perhaps five or six times as much.  They are also provided with accommodation and a food allowance.

The workers are optimistic that the threat of further strike action, especially with support from the SSWTUF, and information about terms and conditions from the other mobile companies will ensure that they are able to win significant improvements.

Interview with Nyuon Janguan, General Secretary, South Sudan Workers Trade Union Federation

Drew Povey: What is your background?

Nyuon Janguan: I come from a traditional rural background.  My father was a chief in Bieh, a village in the far north of what is now South Sudan.  In 1986, when I was 14 years old I decided that I wanted to go to school.  So I sold a few of my cows and went to live with a friend of my family’s in Kadugli.  That was three days walk from our village.  Later I moved to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan where I managed to complete my primary and then my secondary education in 1994.


Nyuon Janguan, General Secretary, South Sudan Workers Trade Union Federation

Drew Povey: How did you first come in contact with the trade union movement?

Nyuon Janguan: After I finished my secondary education I joined the government service in Bentiu, in what was then the Southern Region of Sudan.

I realised the importance of trade unions when I was appointed as a financial officer for Mayom County [local government].  That was in 1999. There were some officials from the trade union who came to collect their subscriptions from us.  Then I got an understanding of the importance of trade unions and why it is important to be a member.  It has protected the right of workers and also deals with the democratic system that was related to my political career.  That is why I became interested in trade unions.

I was appointed as a member of the trade union committee in 2000. The three members of the executive were elected by the conference – the Chair Person, Secretary General and Finance Secretary.  They then appointed other members of the committee by consultation. For the first term I was appointed as the Internal Secretary for five years.  In my second term I became the deputy chairperson of Unity State from 2006.

Then, in 2010 we formed a committee to make registration of trade unions in all the ten states and the South Sudan Workers Trade Union Federation nationally had its conference.  On that day I was elected as the Deputy General Secretary.  Later the same year the General Secretary was not in the office as he had some other work.  So on 19 February 2011, I started as acting General Secretary and have stayed in this post up to now.

Drew Povey: So what are the main challenges facing trade unions in South Sudan?

Nyuon Janguan: We have so many challenges facing us.  The government sometimes is using threats against the trade unions leaders.   And also we are not well established. We have so little money, as most members are not established in trade unions.

Drew Povey: So the key thing is to register trade unions and recruit members?

Nyuon Janguan: Since 2005 some unions have existed in the region.  But right now we need to recognise unions, like the teachers trade union under the Trade Union Federation.  The teachers have been organising, but they have yet to conduct their national union conference.  They need to organise as they are not paid well, many primary school teachers only receive $100 a month.  This is certainly not enough for a family to live on in the main towns.


Members of the Executive of the Workers Trade Union Federation (on almanac)

Drew Povey: What about the officials working in the government ministries?

Nyuon Janguan: The government has said that we can only organise the union in the ministries after the Workers Trade Union Act has become law.  This was passed by the parliament in early December and now we are just waiting for the President to sign it into law. This will become a weapon for us that can protect the entire workers of South Sudan.

Drew Povey: The Vivacell workers elected a committee and had a strike recently?

Nyuon Janguan:  They are starting to organise.  That is a good idea.  We are supporting them during the negotiations with the government and the company.

Drew Povey: Last month you were appointed as a member of parliament – how do you think this will help your work as a trade union leader?

Nyuon Janguan: I was appointed as a member of the national assembly.  Effectively this will help my work as I will be able to defend workers in parliament.  It is a very good time to be appointed.  The priority is my trade union work.  This is where I will help workers.  I will be able support them by speaking in parliament or speaking to the President and other people.  So I think this will be helpful for the workers. My real interest is the trade union.  When the parliamentary session finishes I come immediately to the TU offices.