Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, South Africa, has said this week’s historic referendum in southern Sudan felt like the fulfilment of a “long-awaited dream”.
The cardinal, who was in the country to observe the referendum, said it reminded him of the euphoria in South Africa at the end of Apartheid.
He told The Catholic Herald: “It is that same feeling that at last we could determine our own destiny, we could have a say in how our future could be.”
Throughout the week the people of southern Sudan have been voting on whether to become independent from the north. The referendum was a key part of the 2005 deal that ended the decades-long civil war between north and south.
By Tuesday the largely peaceful vote had been marred by an ambush of southern Sudanese near the north-south border which killed 10 people.
A convoy of southern Sudanese had been travelling south to take part in the referendum and, according to a Sudanese minister, were attacked by a band of Misseriya Arab tribesmen.
Cardinal Napier, who did not know about the ambush, said the referendum had been well organised and had gone “exceptionally well” across the country.
He said: “The atmosphere is very hopeful, very optimistic. I would say for most people this is like a postponement of a dream, a long-awaited dream that has finally been fulfilled.”
The cardinal, a guest of Archbishop Paulino Lokudu Loro of Juba, said the “feeling of euphoria” reminded him of the first full elections in South Africa in 1994. “The feeling is that it’s the birth of a new nation,” he said.
He said it was impossible to imagine that the people of southern Sudan would vote to stay united with the north and continue to be treated as “second-class citizens”.
He added: “Very clearly, a lot of very serious negotiation needs to take place about the distribution of resources and about how to ensure that everyone in Sudan has the opportunity to enjoy what God has blessed the country with in terms of natural and man-made resources.
“There are very difficult and serious times ahead. A settlement must be worked out that will be of benefit to the whole of Sudan and not just one party,” the cardinal said.
He said he had talked to the Hollywood actor George Clooney at dinner about “how wonderful it was” to witness the referendum.
He said Mr Clooney had told him he had become interested in Sudan after visiting the country during the Darfur crisis.
The cardinal also praised the “hardy” ex-presidents of southern Sudan who had given their life to the cause of an independent southern Sudan.
The war between the mainly Islamic north and predominantly Christian south started in 1955 and continued on and off until 2005. It killed about two million people.
Southern Sudan is one of the least developed areas in the world.