Monday, March 22, 2010

Human Rights Day

Fifty years ago, on 21 March 1960, the apartheid police force killed 69 people and injured many peaceful protesters who were struggling against the apartheid pass laws and apartheid in general. The commemoration of the Sharpeville Massacre became to be known as Sharpeville Day. Sharpeville Day is now called Human Rights Day, a day in which South Africa is supposed to reflect on issues concerning all aspect of human rights.

Fifty years on the question still surfaces: what exactly happened on that fateful morning?

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 on his person 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 arbitrary 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. The country went up in flames as anger spread through townships across the country. More were killed in the days after Sharpeville.

An outraged international community, such as this crowd gathered outside South Africa House in London's Trafalgar Square, 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.

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, amid much fanfare on 8 May 1996.
In 2001, the government marked 21 March by unveiling the Sharpeville human rights memorial on the site outside the police station where the 69 men, women and children were shot. Their names are all displayed on the memorial plaque.

The 46th anniversary of Sharpeville Day was also the 10th birthday of Human Rights Day and the signing of South Africa's Constitution - 10 years during which a number of laws have been enacted to protect basic individual rights in the country. Among these are pieces of legislation that significantly provide for gender equality, and give citizens access to the equality court in the event of any form of discrimination. Statutory institutions such as the Commission for Gender Equality, the Human Rights Commission, and the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural and Linguistic Communities, also now exist.

PG: Man to man, generation to generation.

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