Why do we celebrate Human Rights day in South Africa on this day?
On 21 March 1960, the president of the Pan African Congress, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe organised a peaceful, countrywide uprising against the pass book (dompas), issued only to those in South Africa who had been classified as ‘black’ by the Apartheid government.
The laws that governed these documents were extremely oppressive, divisive and discriminatory. Application had to be made for a permit to leave their designated township, another permit to enter the area where they were going to work and a myriad other details had to be provided. This effectively hamstrung the men or women who were desperately in need of employment by effectively restricting their freedom of movement and dividing their families, causing irreparable damage.
Sharpeville became the epicentre of this protest, close to Vereeniging in the then Transvaal province. The crowd greatly increased in number and included women and children. They presented themselves at the Orlando Police Station without their pass books to be arrested. Many of the men in the crowd dropped their documents in a drum to be burned.
After giving the crowd a final warning to disperse, the police opened fire. In the process sixty-nine members of the fleeing crowd were killed, with more dying in hospital in the aftermath and a hundred and eight people were injured. Foreign journalists managed to cover the unfolding of this massacre extensively, and broadcast it worldwide, exposing the brutality of the apartheid government.
The victims’ bodies were removed by the police force, placed in closed caskets and transported to the mass funeral on open, flatbed trucks driven by the police. This was done to prevent a riot from breaking out.
This event triggered three decades of protests against the inhumane practices and laws of the apartheid government.
Thus on 21st of March we commemorate those who lost their lives and were injured protesting against injustice. This day is also a reminder of the many rights we have gained since the dawn of democracy which is enshrined in our world class Bill of Rights adopted in 1996.