South Africa marked the 50th anniversary today of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 which resulted in 69 demonstrators being killed and 180 others injured by police in the township. The demonstrators had been marching against pass laws.
Acting President, Kgalema Motlanthe made the following speech at the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of Human Rights Day in Sharpeville:
Sharpeville Massacre during which about 300 demonstrators marching against pass laws were shot at by apartheid police in the township.
Ministers and Deputy Ministers;
Members of the National and Provincial Legislatures;
Premier of Gauteng Province, Ms Mokonyane;
Executive Mayor of Sedibeng, Councillor Mofokeng;
Mayors of all Municipalities;
Leaders of various political organisations;
Survivors and families of the Victims of the Sharpeville Massacre;
Distinguished guests; and
Ladies and gentlemen:
“My grandmother had taught us to say goodbye when we went to the shop in town, because we never knew if we would come back or not. We used to say ‘If you don’t see me, check me at Number four’.”
These are the words of a brave woman who dared to express her democratic right to protest against oppression and discrimination, by burning her pass book like the thousands of others on that fateful day of 21 March 1960.
The history of the African people is punctuated by uprisings and massacres like the Bulhoek massacre, the Bambatha rebellion, the Race Riots and Liliesfontein carnage where 35 Khoisan people were killed for being alleged British sympathisers.
Hardly two months before the Sharpeville massacre, the potato boycott erupted in Bethal in the old Eastern Transvaal where prisoners were treated in inhuman conditions.
This, like many other incidents of political resistance was crushed by the apartheid machinery. What is ironic of course is that the regime’s response was followed by Commissions of Inquiries which never found anybody guilty or liable for prosecution.
Sharpeville and Langa massacres were a tipping point in that they triggered revulsion and disgust locally and internationally.
The government of the day responded by banning the ANC and PAC and this precipitated the end of the non-violent struggle and brought to bear an advent of the armed struggle by the liberation movement.
What is important to note hear is that, this Human Rights Day reminds us of our common history that needs to be told objectively for the benefit of this present and succeeding generations.
We need to take active ownership of this history both as various political organisations and members of society.
By the same token, conscientious admirers of history must acknowledge the roles played by certain communities and political organisations on all sides of the political and ideological divide.
We cannot fail to mention that various people and ordinary folks successfully mobilised communities to resist oppression whilst others managed to saved lives.
This had a positive result of emboldening those on the frontline of resistance to the apartheid.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The fact is that, a common ownership of our history is the basis of nation-building and must never be undermined by any interest group based on the subjectivity of race, religion, class or ideology.
For the most part, the seminal events in Sharpeville in 1960 heightened general awareness of the international community on the negative effects of racist policies.
The massacre of sixty-nine (69) people and the injury incurred by more than 180 defenceless ordinary men, women and children, placed the struggle of the African people on an international terrain.
Of course, subsequent years have proven that this epochal event, and other preceding uprisings like the Defiance Campaign, was a major tipping point in the tolerance of our people against an unjust and inhuman system.
Fellow South Africans, let us also note that laws of even severe state repression followed from Sharpeville.
These barbaric pieces of legislations such as the Terrorism Act and the Unlawful Organisations Act which banned the PAC and ANC empowered the authorities to imprison people indefinitely without trial. Moreover, they indemnified them from prosecution for killing and jailing people indiscriminately.
I made mention of the local and international abhorrence against the events of Sharpeville 1960 because up to this point, South Africa was a member of the international community. However, the massacre began the decisive isolation of South Africa from the international community and the United Nations which adopted the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Furthermore, in 1966, the UN General Assembly proclaimed March 21 as the International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Such proclamation was evidence that the international community was pledging its solidarity and support for the marginalised and oppressed people of South Africa and elsewhere in the world in their fight for human rights and human dignity.
Of course, for us as South Africans, we duly come back to Sharpeville to pay homage to our heroes and heroines.
This place inspires us to sustain the pursuit of civil liberties that are enshrined and guaranteed in our Constitution which was signed by our first democratically-elected President, Nelson Mandela, here in Sharpeville in 1996.
The question remains however: what does this significant event mean and imply for us in present-day South Africa sixteen (16) after attaining our hard-won democracy.
Allow me to refer to an apposite verse from the popular icon, James Douglas, when he says:
“Not unto us, but unto the noble army of the heroic dead be the praise, the glory, and the laurels of the divine liberty that purifies the earth, the sea and the air. Greater love knoweth no man than the love of the soldier who lays down his life for the unborn generations of mankind”.
A key message from the Human Rights Day is that we should honour all our martyrs who sacrificed their lives in pursuit of the noble goals of freedom.
In effect, this means as public representatives – at local, provincial and national levels – we should always remember the dead because we are their living delegates as they have relinquished their rights to participate in this freedom we enjoy.
This alludes to our obligations and responsibilities to improve the socio-economic conditions of our people in honour of the departed who paid the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The freedom we enjoy today in South Africa means we must exercise our responsibilities diligently so that even those who are aggrieved by slow pace of service delivery will not resort to burning public facilities such as libraries and schools.
I believe freedom also obliges communities themselves to take ownership of protecting everyone’s human rights and protecting the vulnerable members of our society.
This fiftieth (50) anniversary of the Sharpeville, Langa, Nyanga and Vanderbijlpark massacres takes place under the theme of “working together we can do more to protect human rights”.
Fellow South Africans,
It is difficult to imagine that sixteen (16) years ago South Africa was regarded as a pariah state that was notorious for grotesque violations of human rights.
Today our Constitution enjoins each and every one of us to strive for the creation of a non-racial, non-sexist, open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom.
In fulfilment of these values enshrined in our Constitution, government continues to support and value the work of the independent institutions established under Chapter 9 of the Constitution.
These include the Human Rights Commission, the Commission on Gender Equality, and the Office of the Public Protector. We urge all South Africans to make use of these important defenders of democracy.
To adequately commemorate the victims and survivors of the Sharpeville massacre and other bloodbaths, we must ensure the progressive realisation of the socio-economic rights as envisaged in the Bill of Rights.
This means as government working with our social partners, we must strive to improve the quality of life of all our people by providing shelter, basic amenities, education, and security.
Accordingly, to achieve the provision of the Bill of Rights, government has identified five (5) national priorities. These priorities are:
• rural development and land reform,
• creating decent work, and
• fighting crime.
The President of the Republic has remained steadfast in stating that as government we need to work faster, harder and smarter to build a united and prosperous South Africa.
It is therefore imperative that we deliver services efficiently and these must be accelerated at all levels of government, because in doing so we would be able to arrest the spate of service delivery protest.
I would like to believe that all of us, including all political and civil formations, business and organised labour must share this responsibility and work constructively with government to improve the lives of our people for the better; this explains our motto: “working together we do more to speed up service delivery”.
Experience has shown that working together at community level, we can successfully unlock bottlenecks that constrain effective and collectively agree on community priorities.
Ladies and gentlemen,
A lesson to be learned here is that the people of KwaLanga and Sharpeville in 1960 did not voice their protests by burning libraries and looting public facilities.
They marched peacefully to the police stations to handover their pass books; the badges of slavery.
Therefore, in a democratic era, I urge you to use democratic institutions available to us to voice our grievances and demands. This is our collective responsibility, as much as it is the responsibility of government to fast-track the creation of a better life for all.
My challenge to those responsible for public policy formulation and implementation is: do we display selflessness, diligence and dedication in the execution of our tasks?
I am sure you would agree that when the people of Sharpeville and other parts of the country waged struggles for emancipation from apartheid, they did so in a selfless and dedicated manner.
In the State of the Nation Address, the President urged all social partners to work together to grow the economy, create jobs, improve education, develop rural communities and protect the environment and to create safer communities.
This, fellow South Africans, would be a fitting tribute to the people who laid their lives during the Sharpeville Massacre for all of us to be free.
Fellow South Africans,
Let us pledge to show the world our abhorrence to the heinous acts of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.
Let us remind ourselves that the lives lost on that fateful day in history and the scores of people injured were not in vain.
We say never, never and never again will a government arrogate itself powers of torture, arbitrary imprisonment of opponents, and the killing of demonstrators.
In the same breath, we state that our democratic government undertakes to never ignore the plight of the poor, those without shelter, those without means to an education and those suffering from abuse and neglect.
This is a day on which we re-commit ourselves to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law.
We are a united nation bound together by the very history that sought to tear us apart.
I wish to restate that, on this Human Rights Day, we should remember that a common ownership of our history is the basis of nation-building and must never be undermined by any interest group based on the subjectivity of race, religion, class, gender or ideology.
Together we can do more to protect and make human rights real.
Together we can do more to build a better future we can all be proud of as a nation united in its diversity.
I thank you.