21 March, now known as Human Rights Day, commemorates a dark day in South Africa’s history, where 69 unarmed protesters were killed by South African police outside a police station in the township of Sharpeville, south of Johannesburg.
The Sharpeville Massacre
On 19th March 1960, PAC President Robert Sobukwe announced that they were going to embark on an anti pass campaign on Monday the 21st. Sobukwe emphasized that the campaign should be conducted in a spirit of absolute non-violence and that the PAC saw it as the first step towards the people’s bid for total independence.
On 21 March 1960 between 5 000 and 7 000 people converged on the local police station in Sharpeville, offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying their pass books. According to the police, protesters began to stone them and, without any warning, one of the policemen on the top of an armoured car panicked and opened fire. The official figure is that 69 people were killed, including 8 women and 10 children, and 180 injured, including 31 women and 19 children. Many were shot in the back as they turned to flee.
The Sharpeville Massacre acted as a catalyst for the armed resistance movement against apartheid in South Africa. 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.
I’d like to share with you this poem by South African activist, Dennis Brutus, as he remembers Sharpeville.
Sharpeville What is important about Sharpeville is not that seventy died: nor even that they were shot in the back retreating, unarmed, defenceless and certainly not the heavy caliber slug that tore through a mother’s back and ripped through the child in her arms killing it Remember Sharpeville bullet-in-the-back day Because it epitomized oppression and the nature of society more clearly than anything else; it was the classic event Nowhere is racial dominance more clearly defined nowhere the will to oppress more clearly demonstrated what the world whispers apartheid declares with snarling guns the blood the rich lust after South Africa spills in the dust Remember Sharpeville Remember bullet-in-the-back day And remember the unquenchable will for freedom Remember the dead and be glad - Dennis Brutus 1973
Sharpeville was more than a protest against the Pass Laws of the apartheid regime, it was an affirmation by the people, rising in unison to proclaim their rights, and it became an iconic date in our country’s troubled history.
When commemorating Human Rights day, during his presidency, Nelson Mandela said:
“March 21 is the day on which we remember and sing praises to those who perished in the name of democracy and human dignity. It is also a day on which we reflect and assess the progress we are making in enshrining basic human rights and values.”
Let us not forget, let us remember the events at Sharpeville that led to us celebrating our Human Rights today.