Southern Sudanese politicians of the 1950s and 1960s have been criticized for a rivalrous, divisive politics, which left the south disunited and vulnerable. While acknowledging that these men were a tiny, squabbling group, remote from those they sought to represent, this article suggests that they faced an impossible task. The demand to represent ‘the south’ did not come solely, or even largely, from the people who lived in the southern provinces: southern politics was heavily extraverted, pulled by the interests and prejudices of northern Sudanese, Egyptians, Britons, and others. Like other African nationalists of the time, southern Sudanese politicians struggled to weave together different levels of moral community, from the very local to the imagined nation. Yet they did so in uniquely unfavourable circumstances: subject to constant harassment and occasionally lethal violence, unable to secure political compromise, and without patronage resources. Representing the south gave these men space to talk about the increasingly desperate circumstances of those who lived in Sudan's southern provinces; but it gave them almost no space at all to negotiate a civic culture of southern politics.