OpEd, Politics

Bridging divides, building futures: Transforming South Sudan’s labuor policy for youth empowerment

By Bek Dhuorjang Chol



As the youngest country in the world, South Sudan faces a complex and challenging employment landscape.

The economy is heavily reliant on oil revenues and marred with political and violent conflict, cases of corruption and mismanagement and a country being held hostage by a few powerful cartels, leading to widespread unemployment and underdevelopment, especially among the youth who are the majority in the country with 72% approximately. In this article, I’m going to narrate the story of Mr. X and Mr. Y’s experiences, capture the contradictions and disparities that have been created within South Sudan’s employment system.

Mr. X was born and raised in one of the areas in South Sudan, where opportunities are scarce, and survival is hard. His journey into the workforce started unconventionally; during his studies at a locally unrecognized university, he joined the ranks and files of the country’s organized forces. This decision, fuelled by a lack of better options and the pull of a steady income, marks the beginning of his complex relationship with the state and its institutions through the so-called whom you know rather than what you know. Parallel to his service, he enrolled in one of the recognized and registered universities in South Sudan. This move was strategic and aimed at legitimizing his academic credentials and enhancing his future employment prospects. Despite the demanding nature of his dual commitments, he managed to graduate.

Mr. X does not rest on his glories. Understanding the importance of higher education in climbing the socio-economic ladder, he embarks on his master’s studies. Meanwhile, his connections, forged from his time in the organized forces and his family’s standing within the community, come into play. Through these networks, notably with relatives and friends in high government positions, he secures employment in one of the lucrative oil operating companies, a stark contrast to the common person’s struggle for even the most menial of jobs. He also submitted his application, got appointed as a university lecturer, and enrolled for PhD studies. Mr. X has rapidly advanced, and his life has witnessed significant changes. He transitioned from a simple life to one of luxury and influence. His first wife was sent to the village and replaced by a new spouse, more befitting of his elevated status. Concurrently, he ventures into entrepreneurship, opening a business in the bustling Juba and Wau markets.

As Mr. X’s wealth and influence grow, so does his ambition. His journey takes a politician turn; leveraging his status as a liberator or son of a liberator, he dives into the gloomy waters of the young nation’s politics. His involvement was strategic, serving to protect his interests and ensure his survival in the volatile political situation of the country. He contested for his community leadership, using his acquired resources and connections to secure a position of power. He started expanding his personal life. He married an additional two wives, a practice he justifies under the guise of cultural traditions. His lifestyle becomes increasingly lavish, marked by a revolving door of luxury cars and extravagant spending. Yet, despite his display of wealth, Mr. X remains untouched by legal scrutiny, protected by political connections and cultural justifications. The intertwining of political power, economic success, and social status reflects the distortions within the employment and social fabric in a country where meritocracy is often overshadowed by nepotism.

On the other hand, Mr. Y was born and raised in a small village in the country, where dreams are plentiful, but opportunities are also scarce. From a young age, Mr. Y was determined to break the cycle of poverty and make something of himself. His journey towards education was met with various obstacles, such as lacking resources, intermittent conflicts disrupting classes, and financial strain on his family. Despite these challenges, he persevered, believing that education was his ticket to a better life. After years of hard work and sacrifice, he graduated from secondary school and set his sights on the university. However, the challenges he faced were far beyond his family, who couldn’t afford the fees imposed by the university he enrolled at. His studies were often interrupted by economic instability, turning what should have been a four-year degree into a protracted eight-year ordeal. Yet, he resolved never to quit, for he believed that quitters never win. He spent long nights by candlelight, determined to earn his degree against all odds.

With his degree finally in hand, Mr. Y entered the job market hunting full of hope and ambition. But he quickly encountered a harsh reality: having a degree was not enough. Every job application requires five to ten years of experience, a criterion that is only possible for fresh graduates like him. Even more disheartening was the realization that connections often outdone qualifications. Jobs are reserved for those with the right family ties or friendships, regardless of their ability or experience. Undeterred, he continued to apply for positions he was qualified for, often walking distances under the scorching sun of Juba to deliver his applications in person. But time after time, his efforts seemed futile. His name rarely appeared on shortlists, and on a few occasions, it did; he found himself unable to pass either the oral or written interview process. It was a demoralizing cycle of hope and disappointment as doors kept closing before him.

As years passed, Mr. Y’s situation grew increasingly desperate. Without a steady income, he relied on the generosity of friends for basic necessities like food. His social life dwindled; he couldn’t afford to participate in community events or even contemplate marriage, which is a significant right and rite of passage in his human life. His only fair of shoe wore thin from countless job-hunting treks across the city, a physical manifestation of his relentless but fruitless effort. He sought help from relatives, government and community leaders, but their promises were as empty as his stomach. They praised his intelligence and encouraged him to pursue further studies or join the military, but these were not viable solutions. Further education was a financial impossibility, and the military did not appeal to his peaceful nature or aspirations.

In a final bid for autonomy, Mr. Y decided to venture into entrepreneurship. A former classmate, now slightly more successful, offered him a small loan to start a business selling second-hand clothes in the Konyokonyo market. It was a humble beginning, but Y embraced it with the same determination he had applied to his studies. For a time, it was a lucky turning. He enjoyed interacting with customers and earning his own money; however, he was modest in sums. But his business was short-lived. One day, while selling his goods along the roadside, he was apprehended by the Juba City Council (JCC) authorities. His merchandise was confiscated for violating city regulations, a devastating blow from which he couldn’t recover financially. Facing unbeatable odds, he made one last career change, accepting a position as a night watchman for a security company. It was a far cry from the dreams he once harboured, but it was something. Sadly, his struggle did not end there. One night, while on duty, he was attacked by armed robbers. With no backup and inadequate protection, he stood little chance. His life, filled with promises but marred by unyielding hardship, was cut short.

The above two stories highlight the profound disparities that exist in our employment system. Through their experiences, we gain insight into a world where opportunities and success are often dictated not by merit, effort or qualifications but by one’s social connections and familial background. But, regardless of qualifications or ethical applications, nepotism and corruption have emerged as central themes in our system, which should be uprooted. While others are struggling to secure just one job, others are vanishing in multiple government jobs and ascending through the ranks and files of both corporate and public institutions.

Comparing the two stories, they shed light on the broader implications of their experiences. It serves as a microcosm of the challenges facing the youth, where disparities in employment and societal status are often predetermined by one’s background and connections rather than talent and hard work. We must reform our employment practices and social policies. For the nation to thrive and harness the full potential of its young population, it must promote an environment where merit and hard work are rewarded over nepotism and corruption, or civil society, international and national organizations and the South Sudan government needs to collaborate in promoting an environment where the South Sudanese youth can thrive based on their abilities and contributions rather than background and connections. This includes implementing transparent hiring practices, establishing strong anti-corruption measures and creating a support system for the disadvantaged. As we reflect on these stories of X and Y, it is clear that change is imperative. The future of our country rests on the shoulders of its youth; their energy, innovation and potential are the keys to the nation’s prosperity. This potential can only be realized in a society that values fairness, rewards hard work and provides equal opportunities for all its citizens. I call upon policymakers, community leaders, and citizens alike to advocate for a more equitable and just society. Only through collective effort and systematic reform can our country hope to unleash the full potential of its youth and pave the way for a more prosperous and inclusive shared future.

Further suggestions to the concerned authorities

As we look towards the future, it is essential for the South Sudanese authorities, alongside private and public sector stakeholders, to implement strategies that will create meaningful employment opportunities for our youth and unemployed. The disparity illustrated by the stories of Mr. X and Y. highlights a dire need for systematic change to ensure all citizens have access to employment opportunities. The following recommendations should be taken into consideration:

  1. Implement policies that prioritize South Sudanese nationals for various positions, including drivers, public relations officers, receptionists, guards, secretarial workers, messengers, and cleaners. This could involve setting quotas or providing incentives for companies, NGOs and diplomatic missions accredited to the country.
  2. Conduct a thorough review of current employment policies to identify and eliminate clauses that favour foreign nationals over the nationals. Laws and regulations should be amended to ensure that jobs, especially those requiring specialized skills and others, are reserved solely for South Sudanese in all public, private, NGOs and diplomatic missions.
  3. Develop and fund vocational training and educational programs tailored to the market’s needs. By enhancing the skills of the youth, they become more competitive for positions currently occupied by foreign nationals, particularly in sectors like ICT, administration, HR and service industries.
  4. Encourage and support the establishment of local businesses through microfinance, grants, and business development services. This can create self-employment opportunities and, subsequently, additional jobs for others.
  5. Create job centres and online employment portals dedicated to connecting job seekers with available positions. These centres can also offer career counselling, resume writing assistance, and interview preparation services.
  6. Ensure strict enforcement of labour laws that protect the rights of South Sudanese workers and prevent exploitation by employers, including foreign companies and NGOs. Regular audits and checks should be conducted to ensure compliance.
  7. Diplomatic missions and international organizations accredited to the country should be obligated to employ and work with South Sudanese nationals as it happens in their countries. This could include positions within the embassies or companies and organizations, including but not limited to drivers, secretaries, messengers, receptionists, cleaners, guards, etc.
  8. The government of South Sudan should strictly prohibit employees from working at the same time with the same government of the day in different public institutions, receiving salaries from all those positions. Auditing must be done to identify and remove the names of officials from various pay sheets.
  9. The government should urgently implement biometric attendance systems which can help track the physical presence of government officials in their designated working places. By requiring officials to register their attendance using unique biological traits such as fingerprints, facial recognition, or iris scans, it becomes more challenging or one person to be present in multiple places simultaneously and receiving salaries of full-time government jobs.
  10. The government should establish a centralized database containing the employment details and biometric data accessible to all government departments, and used during hiring process to ensure an individual is not already employed in another office or ghost names.
  11. Public awareness campaigns to educate employers and the broader community about the obligation to employ South Sudanese nationals. Encourage partnership between government, private sector, NGOs and international agencies to create joint employment initiatives and projects that can absorb more South Sudanese youth into the workforce.
  12. Establish a mechanism for monitoring and evaluating the implementation of employment practices aimed at prioritizing South Sudanese nationals. This could involve regular reporting and accountability measures for public and private entities.

By implementing these submissions, the authorities can take major steps towards creating a more inclusive and equitable employment landscape in South Sudan. Through deliberate and concerted efforts, the nation can hope to address the disparities highlighted by the experience of Mr. X and Mr. Y above and move towards a future where all South Sudanese have opportunities to thrive and contribute to our country’s development.

Bek is a Public Administration lecturer at the University of Juba, and currently a PhD candidate at Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST), China.







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