Human Rights Day: Remembering Sharpeville
March 20, 2013
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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.

Remembering Sharpeville

I’d like to share with you this poem by South African activist, Dennis Brutus, as he remembers 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.

Read more about the events around Sharpeville, the Pan African Congress and Robert Sobukwe on SAhistory.org.za



About author

Meruschka Govender

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There are 2 comments

  • Moja Media says:

    Thanks for this great post, MzansiGirl. For most of us Human Rights Day is just a good excuse for a day off work, but it’s good to remember why we commemorate this particular day and to spend at least a few minutes thinking about our rights, and our responsibilities, as South Africans and as human beings.

    • mzansigirl says:

      Thanks Joy. I totally agree with you there. So many South Africans see our public holidays as just another day off work, without recognizing the significance of the day. Let us not forget the brave people who lost their lives at Sharpeville so that we have our freedom today.

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