As South Africa prepares for Human Rights Day, we look back at how far we have come as a progressive nation, with a globally acclaimed Constitution that protects human rights.
On Human Rights Day, South Africa pays homage to all those who lost their lives in the fight for democracy. The day commemorates the Sharpeville Massacre of 21 March 1960, when police opened fire on a group of peaceful protestors in Sharpeville, a small town in the Vaal Triangle, outside Johannesburg.
The group was protesting against the apartheid pass laws. In total, 69 unarmed protestors were killed and at least 180 were injured. The hated identity document – known as a dompas – had to be carried by blacks at all times. It governed where they were allowed to go and where they were allowed to live. Failure to produce your dompas when challenged by the police meant instant arrest, as did being in a forbidden area.
Following the Sharpeville Massacre, in 1966 the UN declared 21 March International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Lawrence Mushwana, the chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), explains the significance of the day: “For many of us, the scars of this sad event still remain deeply embedded in our memories, and similarly, in many areas the evil consequences of apartheid continue to be clearly visible, 18 years into our democracy.
“On this day we are called upon to remember where we have been and where we would never want to be again.”
The massacre was a watershed in the fight against apartheid, a system of racial segregation and discrimination enforced by the government, and initiated by Hendrik Verwoerd, who was the prime minister at the time.
South Africa has come a long way since those days. It is now a fully fledged democracy and human right are entrenched in its internationally respected Constitution. Institutions like the SAHRC monitor and assess the observance of human rights.
Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president, said on Human Rights Day in 1996: “It is a day which, more than many others, captures the essence of the struggle of the South African people and the soul of our non-racial democracy.
“It 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."
On 21 March 1960, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), a splinter group of the African National Congress (ANC) led by the late Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, called for peaceful protests against the pass laws.
Every black male over the age of 16 had to carry his dompas on his person day and night and produce it on demand by the police. Failure to produce it, forgetting it at home, or not having the right stamp in it, meant jail.
Marches were held throughout the country but there were only fatalities in Sharpeville and in Langa, in Cape Town, where two people were killed.
Joe Tlholoe, a journalist and the press ombudsman, was in high school at the time. He remembered: “When the police in Sharpeville saw the masses marching towards them, they panicked and opened fire, killing the 69 and injuring hundreds.
“The country went up in flames as anger spread through townships across the country. More were killed in the days after Sharpeville.”
The police later claimed they were attacked first, with protestors throwing stones at them. However, this has been refuted as many of the people were shot in the back. It is not known what the exact number of demonstrators was on the day: the police reported 8 000, the superintendent reported 5 000 and the PAC reported 2 000.
It was these events that alerted the international community to apartheid atrocities, and people and nations began initiating sanctions against South Africa.
For its part, the government retaliated by declaring its first state of emergency and banning the ANC and PAC. This led to the parties taking up arms against the country, the ANC through its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and the PAC through its military wing, the Azanian People's Liberation Army. The despised pass laws were eventually repealed in 1986 under the leadership of the late state president Pieter Willem (PW) Botha.
Today Sharpeville is also remembered as the place where Mandela signed the new Constitution in December 1996. The document, which is based on the Freedom Charter, came into force in February 1997.
Sharpeville Human Rights Memorial
To honour the lives lost in the Sharpeville Massacre, as well as all those who died for the liberation of South Africa, the Sharpeville Human Rights Precinct was opened on 21 March 2002.
It is located in Seeiso Street in Sharpeville, opposite the police station where the shootings took place. A dramatic wall at the entrance lists the names of the dead, who are buried in the nearby Sharpeville Cemetery. There are also 69 pillars in a garden split by a stream flowing from a fountain.
At its opening, Mandela described Sharpeville as “the Cradle of Human Rights”.