Opinion| When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty

The inspiration for this piece stems from a profound encounter with an individual who has weathered the highs and lows of South Sudan’s tumultuous history. Despite being in his seventies, this man remains steadfast in his dedication to the ideals of freedom and social justice. His unwavering passion struck me, prompting reflection on the responsibility of my generation, the second one after his.

The inspiration for this piece stems from a profound encounter with an individual who has weathered the highs and lows of South Sudan’s tumultuous history. Despite being in his seventies, this man remains steadfast in his dedication to the ideals of freedom and social justice. His unwavering passion struck me, prompting reflection on the responsibility of my generation, the second one after his.

During a recent visit, I sought his perspective on a political development featured in the news. Rather than dismissing my inquiry due to his age, he challenged me, questioning why, as a younger individual, I didn’t have an opinion on a matter that would significantly impact my future. Our ensuing conversation left a lasting impression.

As a second-generation South Sudanese, there’s a reasonable expectation that my cohort should actively engage in and form informed opinions on national issues. This anticipation is not unfounded, considering the unique attributes of youth—our vitality and fervour that drive our pursuit of what matters to us.

South Sudan’s youth are truly exceptional. Confront them with the notion of impossibility, and they’ll defy expectations. Challenge their potential, and they’ll exceed it. Offer them the limitless sky, and they’ll embark on journeys that break records across various fields, from technology and entertainment to arts, business, fashion, sports, and academics.

Statistics from the United Nations in 2012 indicated that Africa, with a population of 1.05 billion in 2011, is projected to double by 2050. Remarkably, about 70 percent of this population is aged 30 or younger. In Africa, the youth, defined as those between 15 and 24 years old, constituted 21 percent of the continent’s billion-plus population in 2011. An additional 42 percent were below 15 years old, with a slightly higher representation of females and a predominantly rural demographic.

In light of this demographic landscape, African governments face a pressing challenge: how to create opportunities for the continent’s more than 200 million youth to lead fulfilling lives and contribute to socio-economic development.

South Sudan, specifically, contends with a population where over 70 percent are under 30, underscoring the pivotal role the youth play in the nation’s development. Beyond being a labour force and human capital, the youth can enhance total factor productivity in a region constrained by limited capital formation. Gainfully employed, they become a significant economic force through consumption activities.

Moreover, South Sudan has the potential to cultivate a new cadre of entrepreneurs crucial for the nation’s prosperity. This demographic boon provides an opportunity to leverage a “demographic dividend.” Failing to tap into and develop the potential of the youth could yield severe consequences, including substantial economic losses, armed conflicts, and political and social upheaval—illustrated by historical events like the Arab Spring.

In this volatile context, neglecting the legitimate grievances of the youth, such as unemployment, inadequate education, limited participation in decision-making, and restricted social mobility, may lead to frustration. This frustration becomes fertile ground for exploitation by opportunistic politicians, potentially leading to violence, a scenario witnessed in various countries.

In Sierra Leone, Lewis and Lockheed (2006) found that social injustice and exclusion were more significant factors contributing to the prolonged civil war than either the diamond trade or political instability. Similarly, in Central America and Jamaica, disenfranchised youths, excluded from job opportunities and decision-making, turned to violence, crime, and identity-based gangs. In the case of South Sudan, a 50-year struggle against Khartoum-based regimes from August 1955 to January 2005 was rooted in social injustice and marginalization.

Defining who qualifies as “youth” is a debated topic. While the United Nations defines youth as persons aged 15 to 24, countries like Ghana, Tanzania, and South Africa consider youth as those between 15 and 35, and South Sudan and Sudan define it as between 18 and 35. This variation helps capture those facing livelihood and unemployment challenges post-schooling.

Understanding social justice requires a preliminary exploration of social injustice. Despite existing in varying degrees globally, South Sudan’s situation differs significantly across economic, political, educational, and developmental aspects. The themes of justice and equity are conspicuously absent in the nation.

The scarcity of justice in South Sudan contributes to the rising threat of crime and violence. Quality education is either unavailable or prohibitively expensive, public university admissions are highly competitive, and post-graduation employment prospects are dismal. The lack of infrastructure and millions living in poverty exacerbate the situation, leading to the closure of small businesses due to the high cost of living.

Political leaders in South Sudan have neglected the basic needs of the masses, fuelling public anger. This deprivation forces people to resort to any means for survival, with violence and crime becoming potential options. Social justice, therefore, places responsibility on both official and non-official actors, including the broader public.

When promises are unfulfilled or government actions are invisible, youths may react to official non-performance. Social justice advocates for equal rights and services for all citizens, addressing issues at global, national, regional, local, and group levels.

These issues stem from the unequal distribution of wealth and resources, unfair treatment based on various traits (ethnicity, tribe, race, culture, sexual orientation, religion, etc.), and laws that endorse segregation. Each year on February 20, the United Nations observes World Day for Social Justice to prompt reflection on how social justice impacts poverty eradication, decent work, and gender equity, with a focus on achieving full employment and supporting social integration.

South Sudanese youths and the majority of citizens have not experienced the benefits of social justice. The neglect of education, employment, and the agricultural sector over the years highlights the insufficient attention the national government is giving to the young population.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines social justice as “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.” It involves promoting a just society by challenging injustice and valuing diversity. Social justice exists when all people share a common humanity, entitling them to equitable treatment, support for their human rights, and a fair allocation of community resources.

In conditions of social justice, discrimination based on educational attainment, gender, sexuality, religion, political affiliations, age, race, belief, disability, location, social class, socioeconomic circumstances, or other characteristics is absent. While equality is a component of social justice, its meaning extends beyond equal opportunity. Phrases like “equal opportunity” and “personal responsibility” have been used to justify significant inequalities, undermining the prospect of realizing social justice.

According to John Bordley Rawls [an American moral, legal and political philosopher], social justice ensures equal access to liberties, rights, and opportunities, and cares for the least advantaged members of society. Just or unjust actions depend on whether they promote or hinder equality of access to civil liberties, human rights, opportunities for healthy lives, and whether they allocate a fair share of benefits to the least advantaged members of society.

Based on my research, I confirmed the following issues affecting youths: more than half survive on less than USD$2 a day, over 3 million adolescents do not attend school, two hundred thousand adolescent girls become mothers annually, and HIV infections among young people are alarmingly high.

These are not just numbers; they represent the harsh realities faced by youths at a critical juncture. The disparity between the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) targets and the current state of affairs for young people leaves no room for further questioning—it is time for action.

Merton’s “Strain Theory” or “Functional Alternatives” [Robert K. Merton’s strain theory remains influential in the field of sociology, criminology, and the study of deviance. The theory, developed in the mid-20th century, suggests that societal structures may pressure individuals to commit crimes as a way of adapting to or escaping from the strain caused by the disjunction between cultural goals and legitimate means to achieve them], emphasizes the societal pressure that may lead individuals to commit crimes as a way of adapting to or escaping from the strain caused by the disjunction between cultural goals and legitimate means to achieve them. While functionalists believe societies must have specific characteristics to survive, Merton notes that a variety of functional alternatives can fulfill these functions, not limited to particular institutions.

The term “anomie,” originally from Emile Durkheim and adopted by Merton, signifies a disconnect between cultural or personal goals and the legitimate means available to achieve them. In the context of the United States, Merton observes the emphasis on the American dream’s goal of monetary success without a corresponding emphasis on the legitimate avenues to attain this goal, resulting in a significant amount of deviance. This theory, much like the Strain theory, is commonly utilized in the study of criminology.

South Sudanese youths, being a diverse group, have varied life experiences, cultural backgrounds, education, gender, social group, and economic statuses, depending on their location. Understanding the dynamics of youth in each local context is crucial, as each generation faces distinct challenges. When working with and planning for youth, it’s important to consider which specific youth cohort is being addressed.

Throughout their life history, young people undergo multiple transitions, including physical, emotional, cognitive, and social aspects. Without appropriate investment in young people in accordance with their rights, these transitions pose risks.

The World Programme of Action for Youth (WPAY), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1995 and expanded upon in 2007, serves as a policy framework and practical guidelines for national action and international support to enhance the situation of youths. The WPAY outlines fourteen priority areas, each with specific objectives and actions, covering education, girls’ and young women’s participation, employment, hunger and poverty, globalization, health, information and communication technologies, environment, HIV/AIDS, drug abuse, youth and conflict, juvenile delinquency, intergenerational relations, and leisure-time activities.

In addition to the challenges highlighted in the WPAY, youth issues arise due to various environmental demands during puberty. These demands can be internal, such as physiological changes, neurological mechanisms, hormonal activities, and puberty, as well as external, involving interactions with peers, adults, parents, and other members of society.

How can youths participate in social development? Social development is concerned with processes of change leading to improvements in human well-being, social relations, and social institutions. It aims for equity, sustainability, and compatibility with principles of democratic governance and social justice. This definition emphasizes material achievements like good health and education, as well as social, cultural, and political achievements, such as a sense of security, dignity, community involvement, and political representation. Addressing the social dimensions of development is as urgent now as it has ever been.

The stark contrast between immense suffering, whether caused by natural or human-induced crises, and the unfathomable accumulation of wealth for a select few, coupled with governments allocating vast sums to assist financial institutions compared to the resources dedicated to addressing the crisis of poverty, defies acceptable norms of justice. To enhance youth participation in governance, the following measures can be implemented:

Youth-Led Development: Encouraging youth-led development is crucial. This approach harnesses the energy, creativity, and skills of the youth to drive positive changes, valuing them as assets for society. Whether on a small or large scale, this approach recognizes the potential of the youth to contribute meaningfully to societal progress.

Youth Bulge and Security: Emphasizing security and social justice for South Sudanese youths is of utmost importance. They are not just tomorrow’s leaders but also today’s assets. With proper support and opportunities, young men and women can significantly contribute to lifting themselves, their families, and communities out of poverty. Unfortunately, youth are often viewed as problems to be contained, posing threats to peace and security. The world is currently experiencing a youth bulge, with almost 90% of South Sudanese youth residing in villages. Investing in their development brings significant social and economic benefits, despite the challenges they face, including violence, crime, unemployment, and HIV/AIDS.

Therefore, it is imperative to involve them in today’s decisions rather than sideline them for tomorrow’s problems. The government must fulfill its obligations to the youth, considering their contributions in policies affecting them. This commitment should extend to increased financial, educational, and technical support. It’s time for stakeholders to cease viewing young people as problems and instead cultivate their promise and potential.

The youth bulge presents both a challenge and an opportunity for development. This demographic shift provides a limited window to develop a larger and younger workforce capable of driving economic and social development. A fundamental change in working with young people, recognizing them as advisors, colleagues, and stakeholders, is essential for truly representative and effective development policies.

In conclusion, youths are active participants in the social sphere. They should not be seen merely as passive recipients of state policies or victims of processes. Instead, they should be acknowledged as proactive agents capable of initiating innovative discourses and practices to challenge and reshape existing development strategies. It’s not enough to be passive listeners; we must also actively engage with and amplify their voices.

It is essential for the government to actively involve the young decision-makers of tomorrow in today’s development decisions. There is a growing momentum for youth participation within the development community globally. Governments worldwide are increasingly supporting youth ministries, implementing youth policies and programs, recognizing the pivotal role young people play in the future development of their countries.

However, there is still a considerable distance to cover to fully realize this potential. The question remains: Are we prepared in South Sudan? It’s time to awaken and responsibly claim our rights, using diplomacy as a tool. In the words of Thomas Jefferson [an American statesman, diplomat, lawyer, architect, philosopher, and Founding Father who served as the third president of the United States from 1801 to 1809], “When tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty.” Youth represent tomorrow’s leaders, parents, professionals, and workers, and they are valuable assets today.

Emmanuel Mangok Deng is a former Secretary for Political Mobilization and Organization in SPLM-IO Youth League in Northern Bahr el Ghazal State.

The views expressed in ‘opinion’ articles published by Radio Tamazuj are solely those of the writer. The veracity of any claims made is the responsibility of the author, not Radio Tamazuj.