In July 2011, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan and became Africa’s newest country. This is what it was like to be a journalist, white and from South African at that moment
Brief: As the Open Society Foundation’s South African foreign policy correspondent I am expected to travel to South Sudan to bear witness to the birth of Africa’s 54th state, where, particularly, I must perceive Pretoria’s attitude towards Juba, and vice versa. In preparation I attend a round table discussion at which South Africa’s former ambassador to the United Nations cautions diplomats of the future Government of South Sudan (or Goss) to “be wary of those who love you more than you love yourselves”, and to “avoid making our mistake, which was to promise too much.”
Airport: A basaltic runway bristling with anti-aircraft guns, and here’s the white whale again: UNHAS’ vast Ilyushin IL-76 multipurpose airlifter. In the tea room-sized terminal (the new one has not been completed in time), an enterprising man with teeth like fossils hawks a “Bye-bye Bashir” T-shirt. Another of his shirts, channelling the Jay-Z hit, gloats: “I got 99 problems, but a Bashir ain’t one.”
The new highway: Four kilometres of newly laid double carriageway connects Juba to the airport. The donated streetlights and the photovoltaic panels meant to power these lie beside the road, still to be erected. A succulent with pretty pink flowers has been planted in the central island, forming a tape of pink that links the unfinished airport to Africa’s newest capital. Hotel: A former governor’s residence now operated as a hotel by an expatriate South African couple, both formerly with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. All the world’s media are in the bar, gassing along to a programme on Discovery called World’s Lost Tribes. The big Al Jazeera cameraman doubles over when a bearded Papua New Guinean wearing nothing but a penis gourd says, “I save my pigs, I save my children, but my house is gone.” Bar: The hotel owner, DeeDee, says, “It happens, you know. I don’t like talking about it but the syndrome is real enough. People who stay here more than a few months get cynical. We call it Juba jaded. JJ’d.”
Room: Cockerels and airplanes. And mosquitoes and the faintest kiss of rain. Then all out Congolese kwassa kwassa from the neighbouring nightclub, which is owned by the giant NBA star Deng. Deng who? It is actually possible to Google this on generator-powered broadband. Consulate: South Africa’s chargé d’affaires arrives 15 minutes late for our meeting, inspects the shoes of the guard in the guardhouse, and then orders him out for ice: “Quickly man, we have a lot to do today.” In his air-conditioned office he reveals fascinating details about South African government support of Salvar Kiir’s provisional government. “We got it wrong in Burundi, where we spent billions on reconstruction and development for no meaningful return—not this time,” he says, tapping a finger on a newspaper report about the planned expansion of the South African Breweries plant, which, like the solitary jebel on the outskirts of town, towers over Juba’s huts and shanties.
Be wary of those who love you more than you love yourselves
Work: I write the story in the foyer of the Beijing Juba Hotel and send it in, cc’ing Pretoria because, well, their man in Juba was just a little too forthright, and I must guard my government relationships carefully. In the dusty parking lot outside the hastily built hotel there is a single palm tree, made of metal and painted blue. Independence eve: A sign that reads “Swiss Ambassador” has been taped to the door of my room. The receptionist says there isn’t nearly enough hotel accommodation in Juba to absorb the dignitaries who are flying in, so I’ve been moved to a room in a construction yard managed by Zimbabwean expatriates who refer to themselves as Rhodies (after Rhodesia, the overthrown white supremacist state). They celebrate independence eve inside their compound walls by drawing swastikas on each others’ nipples and asking me questions like, “have you ever welded a bushcat” (had sex with an African woman). I spend many hours dancing in a field miles outside the walls of the construction yard.
Independence Day: Woken by a call from the chargé d’affaire, who has only just read the by now published story. Incoherent with anger, he demands that I present myself at the consulate, where he accuses me of being a liar, and exactly the sort of thing that is wrong with South African journalism. I play the digital recording of our meeting back at him. “Get out,” he hisses. Stopping by Logali House for a much-needed beer I SMS an account of the extraordinary meeting to my wife, ending the message with a slur against the chargé d’affaire. The phone pings in response. It is the chargé d’affaire.
“Your sentiments are noted.” The new highway: In the course of the Independence Day celebrations all the solar panels meant to power the street lights have been stolen. The succulents are still there, though; their bright chewing gum flowers hold the carriageway together. Adenium obesum, the desert rose, chosen, the taxi driver tells me, because they are native, and grow here regardless of neglect, or help.