Africa's Human Rights Day, 21 March – declared International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by the UN – is synonymous with an innocuous but historic township, Sharpeville, situated between the industrial cities of Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging about 50 kilometres south of Johannesburg.

For many South Africans, the day will always remain Sharpeville Day, a commemoration of the 21 March 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when the police mowed down 69 unarmed people and injured 180 others who refused to carry the hated dompas identity document that was meant only for indigenous Africans.

The day, sometimes also referred to as Heroes' Day, was a watershed in the country's liberation struggle, hence its inclusion in South Africa's post-apartheid holiday calendar. happened on that day?

More than 50 years on, the question still surfaces: what exactly happened on that fateful morning?

Joe Tlholoe, one of the country's most prolific journalists, who was a high school pupil at the time, wrote years later: "With hindsight, the story is simple. The PAC [Pan Africanist Congress], which was 16 days short of its first birthday, had called on African men to leave their pass books at home, go to the nearest police station and demand to be arrested for not carrying the dompas."

The apartheid pass laws humiliated African men in particular.

Every indigenous African male above the age of 16 had to carry the dompas on his person day and night and produce it on demand by the police. Failure to produce, forgetting the pass at home, or not having the right stamp, meant arbitrary arrest and jail.

"When the police in Sharpeville saw the masses marching towards them, they panicked and opened fire, killing the 69 and injuring hundreds," Tlholoe wrote.

"The country went up in flames as anger spread through townships across the country. More were killed in the days after Sharpeville."

An outraged international community turned against the Nationalist Party government. The struggle had reached a new level on the long road towards the country's democratic elections on 27 April 1994.

"That is the simple story that historians will relate," Tlholoe wrote. "The real story was a more complex mixture of pain and grief, suffering, anger and courage, that is best left to izimbongi, the African epic poets, to tell."


Robert Sobukwe

March 21 1960 was the culmination of planning, public meetings and house-to-house canvassing by a young PAC that had broken away from the African National Congress (ANC) on 2 November 1958 and had its inaugural congress at Soweto's Orlando Communal Hall between 6 and 8 April 1959.

Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, a 34-year-old lecturer in African languages at Wits University at the time, opened the congress and was elected president. He spelled out the PAC's policies and painted a picture of a South Africa after liberation that was non-racial, democratic and socialist.

In July that year, Sobukwe announced that the PAC would embark on a programme of "positive action" against oppression. In December he announced that the first target would be the pass laws.

Sobukwe led the march to Orlando Police Station, where he and the party's leadership were arrested, just after they learned of the massacre in Sharpeville.

The journey to the recognition of basic human rights, now entrenched in the Bill of Rights in South Africa's post-1994 Constitution, had begun in earnest.


Armed struggle begins

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.

On 8 April 1960, the Nationalist Party (NP) government, under the premiership of apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd, banned the PAC and ANC, forcing the two movements to go underground and eventually into exile. The days of peaceful protest, so the ANC and PAC declared, were over.

What would follow was protracted guerrilla warfare, the armed struggle against the "regime" waged by the two organisations. This would last 30 years, with the NP eventually forced into negotiations for a new dispensation with leaders such as Nelson Mandela, whom it had branded "terrorists".

In December 1961, the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, detonated its first bombs.

Sobukwe, who was first sentenced to three years' imprisonment on Robben Island for leading the anti-pass law protests, was kept in jail indefinitely under a special amendment to the General Laws Amendment Act – the Sobukwe Clause – which was rushed through Parliament.

Released from Robben Island and banished to Kimberley in 1968, Sobukwe was already ill, and died from cancer 10 years later. But the march for human rights and dignity continued.

In 1986, under heavy pressure, rightist president PW Botha repealed the pass and influx control laws which curtailed the movement of blacks in their country of birth.


New country, new Constitution

The ANC-led government chose Sharpeville as the venue to launch South Africa's new Constitution, signed by its first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, on 8 May 1996.

Since then, a number of laws have been enacted to protect basic individual rights in South Africa.

Among these are pieces of legislation that significantly provide for gender equality, and give citizens equal access to courts in the event of any form of discrimination.

Statutory institutions such as the Commission for Gender Equality, the Human Rights Commission, and the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural and Linguistic Communities, also now exist.

On 21 March 2001, South Africa unveiled the Sharpeville human rights memorial on the site outside the police station where the 69 men, women and children were shot – most of them in the back. Their names are all displayed on the memorial plaque.

SAinfo reporter and BuaNews

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