1960 is often labelled as “the year of Africa”, for numerous African countries gained their independence on that year. But it was also the year when the world learned of the hateful and cruel nature of colonialism, as represented by its ultimate example – South African apartheid. Fifty years ago today, 69 black South Africans were massacred as they protested against the passes which the government required them to carry at all times.
Humphrey Tyler, who was at Sharpeville on that day, makes this account (read it in full here):
The date was set for Monday March 21. Some cynics said Monday was chosen because quite a few men stayed away from work on Mondays anyway, because of hangovers.
The plan was that African men would walk peacefully to the nearest police station and hand in their pass books, the hated dompas they had to carry at all times, or be arrested. They would not resist arrest. They would not carry pass books again. Then they would go home. If enough men did this, it would stop the country in its tracks. The government would be forced to negotiate — even resign. Still, on that Sunday night, it seemed unlikely that the country would be turned on its head within days. But it was.
The demonstrators at Sharpeville were cut down on March 21 by bullets. Then there were strikes, mass demonstrations and riots around the country.
People burned their pass books on bonfires. The PAC and ANC and all public meetings of all races were banned, but it didn’t help. On March 26 the pass laws were (temporarily) suspended in an attempt to ease tensions. On March30 the government declared a state of emergency. The Citizen Force and the commandos were mobilised.
Every year the date is well remembered – March 21st is Human Rights Day in South Africa – but the legacy of the day is still alive in many ways, not only in memories. For example, as Mmanaledi Mataboge writes of the Pan-African Congress (PAC):
the political party that led the protest against apartheid pass laws and came closer than any other liberation movement to pulling off a national revolution, faces political extinction.
For many people in Sharpeville, anger and frustration at the government is almost as strong as 50 years ago – only that today these feeleings are mixed with the realisation that it is a black governement that is responsible for their neglect. This is what Monako Dibetle reports from Sharpeville for the Mail&Guardian:
Fifty years later, Sharpeville’s gravelled streets have barely changed — except now they have more potholes. Sixteen years into the new democratic dispensation, the town where blood flowed in freedom’s name carries the makings of a slum.
Only three roads have been tarred since 1994 and two schools were recently closed down. There are no sports facilities. The famous George Thabe Stadium, where the Constitution was signed in 1996, is a neglected hulk. Residents complain of non-existent municipal services and corruption. Unemployment and crime continue to rise.
The police have changed, the issues have changed, but the effects remain: for most who live here, quality of life and basic rights are severely compromised.
Sharpeville residents recently clashed with police during service delivery protests.
Hofni Mosesi, the leader of the Concerned Residents of Sharpeville, is all too aware of the irony. “It blurs the difference between our government and the apartheid government. It is bitter. Today we are the electorate but we still get the same treatment like under the apartheid government.”
If inequalities continue to grow in South Africa, as the leadership remains more concerned about their cars and flats than the standard of living for the majority of the population, then the anger will continue to grow and there is a chance that the ANC will have to face some angry people. Hofni Mosesi, an executive of the Concerned Residents of Sharpeville, told David Smith– Africa correspondent for The Guardian – that this neglect:
“blurs the difference between the apartheid government and our government. We feel bitter about it if it happens today, if it’s done by the government we voted into power.”
He said that while the ANC remembers Sharpeville on the anniversary, it is neglected for the other 364 days of the year. “This township is just good as far as 21 March is concerned; otherwise, nothing else, forget about it.”
Asked if he felt the sacrifices of 1960 had been in vain, Mosesi said: “To us it was worth it. It could be that it’s not worth it to our present authorities, because it if was worth something our township wouldn’t be in the state it’s in at the moment. The government has betrayed that legacy.
“At some stage all hell will break loose. We don’t know when. There will come a point when we say we have done everything in our power.”
Sharpeville then must remain in the memory of everyone as a showcase of the brutality and inhumanity of apartheid; but its memory must also make South African leaders remember those that fought with them to bring down apartheid and have not seen many gains since the black majority gained its political freedom fifteen years ago.