On 21 March 1960, 55 years ago, 69 people were killed and hundreds wounded during a peaceful protest against the pass laws. It was a watershed moment, in hindsight marking the beginning of the end for the apartheid government.
A plaque on the wall outside the Sharpeville Human Rights Precinct in Vereeniging records the names of the 69 people killed in the 1960 massacre. (Image: Brand South Africa)
Ray Maota and Mary Alexander
As South Africa approaches Human Rights Day on Saturday 21 March, we look back at how far we have come as a progressive nation, with a globally acclaimed Constitution that protects a wide range of rights for all who live here.
Human Rights Day pays homage to all those who lost their lives in the fight for democracy. The day is linked to the Sharpeville Massacre of 21 March 1960, 55 years ago, when police opened fire on a group of peaceful protestors in Sharpeville, a small town in the Vaal Triangle to the south of Johannesburg.
The crowd of thousands were protesting against the apartheid pass laws. In total, 69 unarmed protestors were killed and at least 180 injured. The hated pass book - an identity document known as a dompas, or "dumb pass" - had to be carried by black South Africans at all times. It determined where they were allowed to go and where they were allowed to live. Failure to produce a dompas when challenged by the police meant arrest and jail, as did being in a forbidden area. Forbidden areas were, of course, the more prosperous places set aside for the exclusive enjoyment of white people. Black South Africans were allowed in only for the usefulness of their labour.
The entrance to the Sharpeville Human Rights Precinct. The mural at left recreates a famous news photo of the massacre. (Image: Brand South Africa)
To mark the significance of 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.
“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.
Watch Nobel peace prize laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu reflect on the events and repercussions of the Sharpeville Massacre:
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, South Africa's 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."
A contemporary newspaper report on the massacre, published on 22 March 1960, understated the number of people killed.
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 remembers: “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. But many of the victims were shot in the back. The real number of demonstrators assembled on the day is not know: the police reported 8 000, the superintendent 5 000 and the PAC 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. The parties responded by taking up arms against the government: the ANC through its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and the PAC through the Azanian People's Liberation Army.
The pass laws were eventually repealed in 1986. 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.
News photos of the massacre and its aftermath on display at the Sharpeville Human Rights Precinct. (Image: Brand South Africa)
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”.