Sharpeville remembered: 8 things about Human Rights Day every South African should know

2016-03-21 08:30 - Selene Brophy
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Cape Town - On 21 March, South Africans officially celebrate Human Rights Day, declared a public holiday in 1994 following the inauguration of former president Nelson Mandela.

While it pays tribute to the tragic events of the Sharpeville massacre, it is also a celebration of South Africa’s constitution, which gives equal rights to all.

Human Rights Day is but one of the many bricks in SA's road to democracy. Here are a few things about our complex past that happened on this day, that you might not know...

1. The Sharpeville massacre took place on Monday, 21 March in 1960 as police opened fire on about 5 000 people who had come to the Sharpeville station to protest pass laws.

2. Some 69 unarmed people were killed and another 180 were injured.  

3. The pass law was also humiliatingly referred to as the dom pass and was a particular indignation for black men who had to produce it on demand and could be arrested and detained on the spot if they did not have it on them.

4.  It is believed the movement was initiated by the newly-elected Pan Africanist Congress leader Robert Sobukwe at the time, who called for the stand against the pass law. Sobukwe, a 34-year-old lecturer in African languages at Wits University at the time was leading a march to the Orlando police station when they heard of the massacre at Sharpeville. 

5. Also referred to as Heroes' Day, the event marked an awakening across the world to the inhumanity of the apartheid regime, however it also meant the start of the end for peaceful protests against apartheid in South Africa as a few days later on 8 April 1960, the Nationalist Party government, under the premiership of apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd, banned the PAC and ANC. 

6. Following international sanctions and many years of struggle, with Sobukwe having been detained on Robben Island, released and then banished to Kimberley where he died of cancer reportedly in1970 - the pass law was only revoked in 1986 by then apartheid leader PW Botha.

7. SA's Human Rights Day on 21 March is also the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

8. In stark contrast to the pass law, South Africa's constitution protects individual rights for equality; human dignity;  life; freedom and security; privacy;  freedom of religion, belief and opinion; freedom of expression; freedom of association and a right to education - see SA's full Bill of Rights here.

WATCH: 1960 Newsreel highlighting Sharpeville massacre on 21 March

Sources:; - The constitution

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