South Africa's Human Rights Day, 21 March – declared International Day for the
Elimination of Racial Discrimination by the UN – is synonymous with the 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.
What happened on that day?
More than 50 years on, the question still surfaces: what exactly happened that 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
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 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."
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
, the African epic poets, to tell."
The day 21 March 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
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
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
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
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
Statutory institutions such as the Commission for Gender Equality and the Human Rights
Commission 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.
Reviewed: 16 March 2015