Today is a public holiday in South Africa on which we celebrate Human Rights Day. The day pays homage to all those who lost their lives in the fight for democracy, particularly the Sharpeville Massacre of 21 March 1960.
It behoves us to commemorate those who lost their lives 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 protesters lost their lives that day and at least 180 injured.
Black South African citizens had to carry a pass book at all times, also known as a dompas. The brave protesters gathered that day without their pass books.
Pass books determined where Black citizens were allowed to go and where they were allowed to live. Failure to produce a dompas when challenged by the police meant instant arrest, as did being in a forbidden area. Those infamous “Whites Only” areas.
The Sharpeville Massacre: A turning point
That dreadful day, 21 March 1960, was a turning point in South African history. If ever the world needed to make up its mind about apartheid, the Sharpeville massacre exposed it for what it was.
International newspapers reported on the incident, accompanied by the shocking photos of corpses strewn across an open veld. The political distress that ensued would eventually overturn white supremacy and ring in democracy.
The significance of Human Rights Day
Lawrence Mushwana, the chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), explains that the scars from the 1960 massacre still remain ‘deeply embedded in our memories’. He said:
“On this day we are called upon to remember where we have been and where we would never want to be again.”
21 March 1960 became the reference point for the world’s assessment of the apartheid government. Six years later, the UN declared 21 March as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
The theme for this year is “mitigating and countering rising nationalist populism and extreme supremacist ideologies.
Racist extremist movements are spreading in various parts of the world. It fuels racism, racial discrimination, and xenophobia, and targets migrants and refugees.
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 Gauteng Department of Sports, Recreation, Arts and Culture opened the Sharpeville Human Rights Precinct on 21 March 2002.
It is located in Seeiso Street in Sharpeville, opposite the police station where the shootings took place. A plaque at the entrance lists the names of the victims laid to rest at the 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”.