For most of us a public holiday is an excuse to party hard the night before and spend the next day either recovering or chilling with friends and family, depending how rough the night before was. It pretty much happens that way for me. Tomorrow in South Africa is Human Rights day. It’s a pretty important one and one all South Africans should actually know a thing or two about, especially if we want to move forward as a country. Something I feel passionately about.
This year marks 52 years since 69 unarmed protesters were killed by police in Sharpeville, Johannesburg. Human Rights day commemorates this day, which became known as the Sharpville Massacre. It honors the lives that were sacrificed that day and the lives that were lost in South Africa’s fight for democracy.
Human Rights day gives us an opportunity, as South Africans, to look back and reflect on the progress that has been made in ensuring the rights of all South Africans. 52 years ago, on 21 March 1960, in Sharpeville, not far out of Johannesburg, thousands were protesting against the pass law, a law which under the apartheid regime forced all black South Africans to carry a pass book, also known as a “dompas”. In this way the apartheid government was able to control the movement of all black people.
The Pan African Congress (PAC) organized national protests against these pass laws during 1960. On March 21, black South Africans were told to gather outside police stations without their pass books, thus offering themselves up for arrest. Sharpeville was not the only area that was affected by deaths during this protest. In Langa Township, Cape Town, 2 people were killed and 49 injured by the police.
In Sharpeville, 69 people were killed and more than 300 injured. The police said they opened fire because the protesters got violent, throwing stones at them, but the evidence showed that people were shot in the back thus showing that the police obviously shot at protesters fleeing the scene. 30 years later, during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission it was found that the police did indeed deliberately fire at an unarmed crowd.
The protests led by the PAC eventually led the apartheid government to call a state of emergency. This was done on March 30 1960. Then on April 8, they banned the PAC and the ANC. During this time Nelson Mandela and the other 29 that were co-accused in the Treason Trial were still on trial. In his autobiography, A Long Walk To Freedom, Mandela recalled, “The massacre at Sharpeville created a new situation in the country.”
After South Africa finally achieved democracy in 1994, March 21 was declared a public holiday known as Human Rights Day.
President Mandela, in a statement on Human Rights Day, said: “21 March is South African Human Rights Day. 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. 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.” On December 10, 1996, the South African Constitution was signed at Sharpeville by Nelson Mandela and came into effect on February 4, 1997. South Africans of all races could now enjoy the same human rights after years of struggle. This is something that should be commemorated.
So enjoy your day off tomorrow but also spare a thought for how far we have come as a country and also how far we still need to go.