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South Africa: Remembering Sharpeville Massacre

On 21 March 1960 the South African police opened fire on a crowd of black protesters who were part of political campaign organized by the Pan African Congress (PAC) against pass laws. It is estimated that 69 people were killed on that day in the township of Sharpeville. This horrific event is commonly known as Sharpeville Massacre .

Sharpeville massacre was the turning point in the history of political resistance to Apartheid in South Africa. Since 1994, 21 March is Human Rights Day in South Africa. March 21 is also the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in memory of the massacre.

Every March 21st, Rethabile posts a poem to remember Sharpeville massacre. His Sharpeville poem for this year is posted on Black Looks:

the day king walked
from selma to montgomery,
the tops of trees shook
as in a forest, and shivered
for this man who had crossed a line
of centuries in the south, but
even more south, we worried for our lot,
resolved as we were to break you,
but you to put us with our ancestors.
of course there have never been questions:
why shoot them in the back? why shoot them?
why shoot? why? but our name got its shrine
where the children now gather,
for sixty-nine of us lay on the street
on that day in march sixty. as others
filled hospitals and covered cell-floors
with clenched bodies, dachau
was completed, stowe published her book,
alcatraz was shut down for good, and
we moved from non-whites
to non-carriers of passbooks.
© Rethabile Masilo

He also posts a poem by South African political activist and poet Dennis Brutus. It is titled, “A Poem About Sharpeville”:

What is important
about Sharpeville
is not that seventy died:
nor even that they were shot in the back
retreating, unarmed, defenseless
and certainly not
the heavy caliber slug
that tore through a mother’s back
and ripped through the child in her arms
killing it
Remember Sharpeville
bullet-in-the-back day
Because it epitomized oppression
and the nature of society
more clearly than anything else;
it was the classic event
Nowhere is racial dominance
more clearly defined
nowhere the will to oppress
more clearly demonstrated
what the world whispers
apartheid with snarling guns
the blood lust after
South Africa spills in the dust
Remember Sharpeville
Remember bullet-in-the-back day
And remember the unquenchable will for freedom
Remember the dead
and be glad.
© Dennis Brutus

Travel Blog Portfolio wishes all South Africans a safe and peaceful Human Rights day and ask them to learn more about Sharpeville Day.

How could such atrocities happen and no one is punished?, asks Sokari Ekine:

It’s been a long time coming, but change is gonna come, sang Sam Cooke about America. He could have been singing about South Africa, or the world, even. For what is baffling is how Sharpeville 1960, Soweto 1976, King’s and X’s murders, the Civil Rights movement, Mandela’s 27 years in jail, not to mention the thousands tortured and killed in South Africa, and tortured and lynched in America, what is baffling is how these have not entered the minds of all and instructed them on the evils of discrimination and segregation in all its forms. That is truly baffling to me.

It is also amazingly stunning that all these things happened and almost no one got punished for it, no international hunt for the wrong-doers, no motivation to see them “brought to justice,” as George Bush the son would say about so many who had committed so less. Today is a day to remember and to know why it should be remembered

Alpha Christian discusses the link between Good Friday, Human Rights Day and Sharpeville Day:

In a recent column in the Beeld, Nico Botha, deals with this anomaly where the Good Friday falls on the same date as the Human Rights Day, or, even better, the commemoration of Sharpeville Day. For many the debate was whether we will loose a public holiday as workers.

Where are we to find the key to link Good Friday to the significance of today, Human Rights day, Sharpeville day ?
I believe the little dialogue between Jesus and Pilate helps us to start to understand this link.

Michael Trapido remembers this day in his post on Thought Leader titled Sharpeville Redux and a Bit More:

On that fateful day a group of between 5 000 and 7 000 people converged on the local police station in the township of Sharpeville, offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying their pass books.

As the large crowd gathered the atmosphere was peaceful and festive with less than 20 police officers in the station at the start of the protest. Police and military tried using low-flying jet fighters in an attempt disperse the crowd without success.

As a result the police set up Saracen armoured vehicles in a line facing the protesters and, at 13:15, incredibly, opened fire on the crowd.

He continues:

The official casualties were 69 people killed, including 8 women and 10 children, with more than 180 injured.

To date the worst case of police insanity in the history of this country.

As a result there followed a spontaneous uprising among black South Africans with demonstrations, protest marches, strikes, and riots taking place throughout the country.

This led to the government declaring a state of emergency on March 30 1960, which saw more than 18 000 people detained.

Texas In Africa notes that Sharpeville was the first major turning point in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and that the massacre led to the militarisation of the anti-apartheid movement:

The rest of the world started to question the regime's racist policies much more openly; South Africa left the commonwealth a year later.

It also provoked the militarization of the anti-apartheid movement. The ANC's militant wing, MK (Umkhonto wa Sizwe) and Poqo, the military wing of the PAC, both formed soon after the massacre. The next thirty years were marked with horrific acts of violence before – to almost everyone's surprise – the evil of apartheid ended peacefully.

Five years later to the day, American civil rights protesters led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began marching from Selma to Montgomery. The attempt by 600 marchers to do the same thing three weeks earlier culminated in Bloody Sunday, an attack by local and state law enforcement officials. With a protective order from a federal judge, five times as many marchers turned out for the March 21 walk. A few months later, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act, which effectively ended the last vestiges of legal discrimination in the south.

My students (whom, you will remember, are almost all black men) sometimes debate the question: “Are you a Malcolm or a Martin?” What they mean by this is, “Is social change best achieved through peaceful means (as MLK carried out his work) or violent means (as Malcolm X advocated)?”

I cannot even begin to claim to be qualified to answer this question. If we look at political history, it's clear that MLK's nonviolent methods worked to restore voting rights and some degree of social equality for American minorities, and they worked relatively quickly. MK and Poqo's violent methods certainly also had an effect on the apartheid regime, although the struggle was very long and ultimately did not end because of violence but rather because of economic turmoil and Mandela's willingness to negotiate a peaceful settlement with de Klerk. But nothing approaching true equality of economic opportunity has happened for the vast majority of blacks in either country.

Abioye discusses the international dimension of Sharpeville Day:

In 1966 the General Assembly of the UN proclaimed March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The UN called on the international community to redouble its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination. The Canadian government and various institutions in Canada including Carleton University and the University of Toronto, colluded with the white supremacist apartheid government of South Africa by refusing to
divest and continuing to trade with the government and South African companies.

South Africa Good News has posted a statement from Nelson Mandela Foundation:

March 21, 2010, marks 50 years since 69 unarmed protestors were killed by South African police outside a police station in Sharpeville, south of Johannesburg.

Nelson Mandela burning his pass on March 28, 1960, in protest to the atrocities at SharpevilleWhen commemorating Human Rights day, during his presidency, Nelson Mandela 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.”

Photographer Greg Marinovich has Sharpeville Massacre photos on his blog.

The Sharpeville Massacre led to new ways of political organisation and resistance. The African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan African Congress (PAC) were banned after the Sharpeville Massacre.

Monako Dibetle notes in his column in the Mail & Guardian that Sharpeville is still bleeding. Recently, the residents of Sharpeville rioted over poor social services .

1 comment

  • […] American stories of strife and struggle. For example, in the blog post by Ndesanjo Macha, titled “Remembering Sharpville Massacre”, there are references to Martin Luther King, Jr’s march on Selma and even to American […]

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