When South Africa held its first democratic election in 1994, Nelson Mandela declared the 21st of March as Human Rights Day to commemorate the Sharpeville massacre and to pay homage to all of those who fought and lost their lives in the struggle for freedom.
Annually on the 21st March, South Africa celebrates Human Rights Day which is one of the most important days in the SA calendar. It commemorates the day when police in Sharpeville, an historically black suburb outside of Vereeniging, about 80km south of Johannesburg, opened fire and killed 69 people engaged in a peaceful demonstration against the apartheid ‘pass laws’ in 1960.
When the Nationalist Party came into power in South Africa in 1948, the government imposed segregation by enforcing a series of laws that gave them control to restrict the movement, the place of residence, place of work, and many other human rights, of people of colour. After implementing the Native Laws Amendment Act of 1952, no black person could leave a rural area for an urban one without a permit or ‘pass’ from local authorities.
The pass included a photograph, details of place of origin, employment record, and encounters with the police. Colloquially, the pass book was nicknamed, in Afrikaans, the ‘dompas’ which translates literally to ‘dumb pass’.
On the 21st March 1960, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) organised a peaceful campaign for women, men, and children to gather in Sharpeville without their passes and present themselves for arrest. It was a day that changed South Africa forever.
The Sharpeville massacre is a tragedy that marked a turning point in South African history. Tom Lodge, a scholar of South African politics, gave an eye witness account in his book Sharpeville, An Apartheid Massacre and its Consequences.
‘On that day, demonstrations against the pass laws, which restricted the rights of the majority black population in apartheid South Africa, began in the early morning in Sharpeville, a township in Transvaal. By lunchtime, the crowd outside the police station had grown to an estimated 20,000 people. All the evidence points to the gathering being peaceful and good-humoured.’
Other witnesses who were present that day reported that, during the early afternoon, there was an altercation between the police officer in charge and the leaders of the demonstration. Despite the protest being non-violent, nearly 300 police officers had arrived to put an end to the peaceful protest. At some point the police opened fire into the crowd, killing 69 people and injuring an additional 180 victims, the majority of whom were shot in the back as they attempted to flee the shooting.
It was a day the country will never forget. One of the most iconic images of the massacre was taken by Jürgen Schadeberg, the famous photographer of Mandela portraits, who originally came from Germany. At that time he worked for Drum magazine as a photo journalist recording history as it unfolded in apartheid South Africa. He remembers in his Memoir, The Way I See It, how he managed his unique image.
‘I wanted to cover the funeral of the victims, which was scheduled to take place a week after the tragedy. The 69 victims were to be buried in a long row, a priest standing in front of each individual grave. I decided that in order to show in one photo the scale of people being buried and highlight the enormity of the massacre I had to take the photo from a high point, as the burial site was on flat land. I chartered a small plane, had the passenger door removed and, wearing a safety harness, took photos leaning out of the passenger seat. For close on two hours we flew around the funeral procession as it moved from the church service in Sharpeville to the burial ground, where I eventually got my photo of the row of graves and the trucks carrying the coffins arriving, the priests standing in front of the graves.’
This tragedy would go down in history as the Sharpeville massacre. A few days later, a State of Emergency was declared by the apartheid government, and both the PAC and the African National Congress (ANC) were banned. As a result of the Sharpeville massacre, protest action by South Africans spread throughout the country but was met with similar violent suppression. During this time, thousands of ordinary people of all races were arrested and injured by police, but the anti-apartheid movement by all opponents of apartheid continued underground.
Without the terrible events of the Sharpeville massacre, we may not have had the international human rights law system that we have today. In 1960, states had no binding international human rights obligations with oversight mechanisms. All that changed following the world’s moral outrage at the killings.
Internationally the day is observed both to remember the Sharpeville massacre and as ‘The Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’. In 1979, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a programme to be undertaken during the second half of the Decade for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination. On that occasion, the General Assembly decided that a week of solidarity with the peoples struggling against racism and racial discrimination, beginning on 21 March, would be organised annually in all member states.
To this day South Africa honours the date with events, discussions and special services to make sure that racial discrimination, in any form, will never happen again in our country.
Ahead of Human Rights Day, DITSONG Museums of South Africa will be hosting a panel discussion centring around the topic of: ‘How can museums and other heritage institutions contribute to unity, social economic renewal, social cohesion and nation building?’ Head over to DITSONG’s website or keep an eye on Creative Feel for further details on dates and times.