South Africa’s Human Rights Day, 21 March – declared International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by the UN – is synonymous with the historic township Sharpeville, situated between the industrial cities of Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging about 50 kilometres south of Johannesburg.
The day, sometimes also called Heroes’ Day, was a watershed in the country’s liberation struggle, hence its inclusion in South Africa’s post-apartheid calendar. Yet more than 55 years on, the question still surfaces: what exactly happened that morning?
“With hindsight, the story is simple,” Journalist Joe Tlholoe, who was a high school pupil at the time, wrote years later. “The PAC, which was 16 days short of its first birthday, had called on African men to leave their pass books at home, go to the nearest police station and demand to be arrested for not carrying the dompas.”
The apartheid pass laws humiliated African men in particular. Every indigenous African male above the age of 16 had to carry his dompas day and night and produce it on demand by the police. Failure to produce your pass or forgetting it at home, or not having the right stamp, meant arrest and jail.
“When the police in Sharpeville saw the masses marching towards them, they panicked and opened fire, killing the 69 and injuring hundreds,” Tlholoe wrote. “The country went up in flames as anger spread through townships across the country. More were killed in the days after Sharpeville.”
The timeline shows how it came to be such an important day in South Africa’s history:
- A group, to become known as the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), breaks away from the African National Congress (ANC) on 2 November 1958;
- The PAC holds its inaugural congress at Soweto’s Orlando Communal Hall between 6 and 8 April 1959;
- Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, a 34-year-old lecturer in African languages at Wits University at the time, opens the congress and is elected president;
- In his first speech, he outlines the PAC’s policies and paints a picture of a South Africa after liberation that is non-racial, democratic and socialist;
- In July 1959, Sobukwe announces that the PAC will embark on a programme of “positive action” against oppression;
- In December 1959, he announces that the first target will be the pass laws;
- Sobukwe leads a march to Orlando Police Station in March 1960, where he and the party’s leadership are arrested, just after they learned of the massacre in Sharpeville;
- The journey to the recognition of basic human rights, now entrenched in the Bill of Rights in South Africa’s post-1994 Constitution, has begun in earnest.
This is the timeline of the aftermath of the massacre:
- On 30 March 1960, following the declaration of a state of emergency, thousands of black people are arrested throughout the country;
- On 8 April 1960, the National Party (NP) government, under the leadership of apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd, bans the PAC and ANC, forcing the two movements to go underground and eventually into exile;
- The days of peaceful protest are over;
- In December 1961, the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, detonates its first bombs;
- Sobukwe, first sentenced to three years’ imprisonment on Robben Island for leading the anti-pass law protests, is kept in jail indefinitely under a special amendment to the General Laws Amendment Act – the Sobukwe Clause – which is rushed through Parliament;
- Released from Robben Island and banished to Kimberley in 1968, Sobukwe is already ill, and dies from cancer 10 years later, but the march for human rights and dignity continues;
- In 1986, under heavy pressure, rightist president PW Botha repeals the pass and influx control laws which curtailed the movement of blacks in their country of birth.
- On 8 May 1996, the ANC-led government choses Sharpeville as the venue to launch South Africa’s new Constitution, signed by its first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela.