Today is Human Rights day in South Africa and whilst it is intended to celebrate all human rights the history of the day started in Sharpville in 1960 when the apartheid state killed 67 peaceful protesters, shooting most of them in the back as they fled.
The day had started as a protest against pass laws organized by the Pan African Congress (PAC). The plan was for thousands of black South Africans across the country to hand in their dreaded pass books at local police stations opening themselves to arrest and ultimately bringing the system to a stand still as the jails filled up and industry slowed down as high numbers of arrested workers were unable to attend work. It was a classic disobedience campaign that went horrible wrong.
Between 5,000 and 7,000 people had gathered at the Sharpeville police station and initially things went peacefully as planned. But soon the young police started to panic and without warning or instruction they opened fire on the protesters continuing to fire on the fleeing protesters for an estimated 30 seconds.
Sharpville was the first time the apartheid state had turned violent against protesters and we can mark this as a new strategy by the apartheid state – ironically, we can also mark it as the beginning of the end for the apartheid state.
Further, even though this was a PAC protest, it was pretty much also the start of the end for the PAC - the ANC launched their armed struggle soon afterwards and the PAC faded away to the point where in the current national parliament they are largely a non-entity.
Tragically, the Sharpville massacre was repeated many times in South Africa in the decades that followed, with the most well known being the 1976 Soweto student riots. Ultimately the continued killing of peaceful protesters by the apartheid state was not sustainable and eventually even the world community started to object.
But it is the massacre in Langa (outside Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape) on 21 March 1985 that really demonstrated that the centre could not hold. On that day, several thousand protesters held a memorial service for the victims of Sharpville; although the apartheid state had banned the service the protesters decided to go ahead. The result was more trigger-happy young police and another 40 dead protesters - once again most were shot in the back as they tried to flee. This was exactly twenty-five years after the Sharpville massacre - within five years of the Langa massacre Mandela was free, the ANC and other black political parties unbanned and the apartheid state finished.
We will always remember the victims of apartheid.