South Sudan: A young union strengthened and emboldened by South-South cooperation

published 26 February 2024 updated 15 April 2024

“We will use the experience provided by the Uganda National Teachers’ Union (UNATU) as a starting point, making sure that we are now going to convince the government to cooperate with us.” That is how Garang Deng Kuol Athian, chairman of the National Teachers Union South Sudan (NTUSS), described the successful exchange of ideas with UNATU.

He added that the partnership, consisting in grassroots visits financially supported by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), was “key to mobilise and turn his young union into a strong, independent one.”

NTUSS: Gaining strategies on attracting and mobilising teachers

The NTUSS leader explained that his union engaged in the partnership in 2023, under the suggestion of the Director of the Education International Africa (EIA) Office, Dennis Sinyolo, “because we were a new organisation and are still growing today.”

The EIA office explained that there are strong organisations in East Africa, UNATU being one of them, already involved in a partnership with CTF. The latter agreed on a plan to financially support this partnership, for NTUSS colleagues to exchange experiences with colleagues in Uganda.

“Three of us travelled to Uganda. We were welcomed by Filbert Baguma and UNATU. Our purpose was to visit their office to see their structure, and share with them ideas, learn the way they started campaigning, joining the EI Go Public! Fund Education campaign, talking about free education and discouraging the privatisation of governmental schools. We spent three days working with them in their office and went with them to their back offices in a small district.”

Kuol Athian acknowledged that his union is also benefiting from this project. “We found that they experienced the same problems we are now confronted to when they started. For example, they told us that they received the recognition letter for UNATU from their employer after 10 years. We will use their experience as a starting point, making sure that we are now going to convince our employer to cooperate with us.”

Another lesson learned, he said, is the importance of being independent as a union. “They are not depending on other sources of income, apart from what they receive in the organisation, in terms of fundraising.”

NTUSS General Secretary, Ibrahim Charles Hussein, added that “the way UNATU mobilises and attracts teachers to join the union was very interesting. We were using an old model of mobilisation. UNATU became an independent union because of the membership that they have. In South Sudan, when we came back from that action visit, we changed our strategies, especially towards reporting union members, and we are now growing up. Slowly, but surely, the union is becoming stronger than before.”

UNATU: Training NTUSS leaders on trade unionism

Asked how the project started for UNATU, General Secretary Filbert Baguma stated that they “had a project which was a consortium working in the refugee camps in Uganda, the BRiCE (Building Resilience in Crises through Education) project, he recalled. “As part of the BRiCE project, I had the mandate to support the teachers of South Sudan, to come up with a plan to form a union. We shared challenges and strategies, and we trained them on the basics of a labour union.”

When the Canadian Teachers’ Federation decided to fund an exchange visit for NTUSS, the South Sudanese unionists chose to come to Uganda and visit UNATU to get some information on union matters on the ground. “They visited our headquarters, and we even took them to two of our regions to see how regional affairs work and the existing type of relationships between the national headquarters and the regions.”

Baguma pointed out several points that NTUSS had strengthened in result of their collaboration, from sensitisation about the concept of unionism, to leadership capacity, communication and mobilisation. He said that the union had improved its infrastructures and crafted a constitution. All these changes had resulted in a steady leadership. “They are part of the Federation of East African teachers and joined Education International.”

He expects “this young union to grow and become strong for the benefit of the teachers and the learners of South Sudan.”

CTF: Union philosophy in favour of South-South Cooperation and decolonisation

Beverley Park, Director of the CTF’s International and Social Justice Programme, also explained that this type of cooperation project “is part of our philosophy, but it is a philosophy that has not concretised much so far, because even if we often talked about supporting study projects, for the majority, no to say almost everything, it was the financing of the projects by us and it was with a partner or a consortium.”

Park went on highlighting that capacity-building for teacher organisations is one of the three CTF pillars of operations and noted that the turnaround for the NTUSS and UNATU project was very quick. "We signed the agreement in February of 2023 and in that very same month they were actually implementing the travel. it was successful from our point of view."

Sandy Plamondon, CTF Programme Officer, International and Social Justice Programme, added that, “clearly, working with an African organisation that will provide training to an African organisation, we are indirectly decolonising, because it is not the ‘white’ who will dictate or impose anything. This goes in line with the union philosophy of decolonisation. Finally, there is less of a power relationship when there are two organisations coming from the same region.”

The NTUSS/UNATU/CTF initiative, an inspiration for future South-South cooperation

“Looking into the future, we are really inspired by this initiative,” enthusiastically said EIA Director Dennis Sinyolo.

Emphasising the critical importance of South-to-South cooperation, he noted that peer learning and support “is one of the priorities that we have in our operational plan, which is an adaptation of the overall EI strategic plan. It is one of my strong beliefs that member organisations in Africa, in the global South must help each other more, should be able to support one another, with the little resources they have, in different ways.”

He added that this exchange visit is one of the three initiatives that have emerged or succeeded in Africa so far.

“I believe that these three inspiring examples, a good foundation for us to move, hopefully in a year or two, we will be talking about five or seven or even more South-South cooperation programmes,” he concluded.