Sharpeville: Remembering our struggle for human rights

Human Rights Day, 21 March, is a national holiday celebrating the sacrifices ordinary South Africans made for their freedom. In 1960, about 5 000 people gathered outside the Sharpeville police station. The crowd was peaceful, but 69 people died.

In 1960, about 5 000 people gathered outside the Sharpeville police station. The crowd was peaceful in its protest, but 69 people died. (Image: Gauteng Film Commission)

Brand South Africa reporter

Human Rights Day, 21 March, is a national holiday celebrating the sacrifices ordinary South Africans have made for their freedom. On this day in 1960, about 5 000 people gathered outside the police station in Sharpeville, a township.

The crowd was peaceful, but demanding to be arrested for disobeying the inhuman pass laws.

Instead, police guns blazed – and 69 people died.

South Africa’s Human Rights Day is 21 March. That date is also the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It is the day when, in 1960, 69 ordinary South Africans were gunned down by police – for protesting against the apartheid pass laws, and peacefully demanding to be arrested.

The protest took place in the historic township Sharpeville, which lies between the industrial cities of Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging, about 50 kilometres south of Johannesburg.

The day, also referred to as Sharpeville Day and Heroes’ Day, finally made the world aware of the inhumanity of the apartheid regime.

It forced the international community to start to put pressure on the National Party government. It also boosted South Africans’ own struggle to free themselves from an illegitimate regime whose only response to the protests of working people was to gun them down.

What happened on that day?

It’s now more than 55 years later. But the question is still asked: What happened on the morning of 21 March 1960?

Joe Tlholoe, one of the country’s most prolific journalists, was in high school at the time.

Years later, he wrote: “With hindsight, the story is simple. The PAC [Pan Africanist Congress], 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 African male over the age of 16 had to carry the dompas day and night and produce it on demand by the police. Failure to produce, forgetting the pass 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.”

An outraged international community turned against the Nationalist Party government. The struggle had reached a new level on the long road towards the country’s democratic elections on 27 April 1994.

“That is the simple story that historians will relate,” Tlholoe wrote. “The real story was a more complex mixture of pain and grief, suffering, anger and courage, that is best left to izimbongi, the African epic poets, to tell.”

Robert Sobukwe

The day 21 March 1960 was the culmination of planning, public meetings and house-to- house canvassing by a young PAC that had broken away from the African National Congress (ANC) on 2 November 1958 and had 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, opened the congress and was elected president. He spelled out the PAC’s policies and painted a picture of a South Africa after liberation that was nonracial, democratic and socialist.

In July that year, Sobukwe announced that the PAC would embark on a programme of “positive action” against oppression. In December he announced that the first target would be the pass laws. Sobukwe led the march to Orlando Police Station, where he and the party’s leadership were 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, had begun in earnest.

The struggle begins

In the aftermath of the massacre, following the declaration of a state of emergency on 30 March 1960, thousands of black people were arrested throughout the country.

On 8 April 1960, the Nationalist Party (NP) government, under the premiership of apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd, banned the PAC and ANC, forcing the two movements to go underground and eventually into exile. The days of peaceful protest, so the ANC and PAC declared, were over.

What would follow was protracted guerrilla warfare, the armed struggle against the “regime” waged by the two organisations. This would last 30 years, with the NP eventually forced into negotiations for a new dispensation with leaders such as Nelson Mandela, whom it had branded “terrorists”.

In December 1961, the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, detonated its first bombs.

Sobukwe, who was first sentenced to three years’ imprisonment on Robben Island for leading the anti-pass law protests, was kept in jail indefinitely under a special amendment to the General Laws Amendment Act – the Sobukwe Clause – which was rushed through Parliament.

Released from Robben Island and banished to Kimberley in 1968, Sobukwe was already ill, and died from cancer 10 years later. But the march for human rights and dignity continued.

In 1986, under heavy pressure, National Party president PW Botha repealed the pass and influx control laws which curtailed the movement of black people in their country of birth.

New country, new Constitution

The ANC-led government chose Sharpeville as the venue to launch South Africa’s new Constitution, signed by its first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, on 8 May 1996.

Since then, a number of laws have been enacted to protect basic individual rights in South Africa. Among these are pieces of legislation that significantly provide for gender equality, and give citizens equal access to courts in the event of any form of discrimination.

Statutory institutions such as the Commission for Gender Equality and the Human Rights Commission also now exist.

On 21 March 2001, South Africa unveiled the Sharpeville human rights memorial on the site outside the police station where the 69 men, women and children were shot – most of them in the back. Their names are all displayed on the memorial plaque.

Updated on 14 March 2016

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