60th anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre: Now is the time for South Africa to introspect

21 Mar 2020

Gugu Nonjinge is the Afrobarometer communications coordinator for the Southern Africa region, based at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, South Africa.

The 60th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre presents us with a poignant reminder that now, more than ever before, our national commitment to human rights should be prioritized

Most public holidays in South Africa hold great historic significance, serving as remembrances of a painful history as well as reminders of how far South Africa still has to go.

Human Rights Day in South Africa is historically linked with 21 March 1960 and the events of Sharpeville. On that day, 69 people died and 180 were wounded when police fired on a peaceful crowd that had gathered in protest against the pass laws. This day marked an affirmation by ordinary people, rising in unison to proclaim their rights. It became an iconic date in our country’s history, a reminder of our rights and the price paid for our treasured human rights.

On the 25th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre, on 21 March 1985, members of the South African police opened fire on a crowd attending the funeral of an apartheid activist in Langa, Eastern Cape. This incident became known as the Langa massacre

In 2020, as South Africa commemorates the 60th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre and the 35th anniversary of the Langa massacre, Human Rights Day should also remind us of how far South Africa still has to go to protect the human rights of ALL its residents.

All people have the right to human dignity, equality, and freedom. Yet those who lack privilege and power are not always ensured the protection of these so-called inalienable human rights. While our liberation struggle attended to the needs of the time, our journey to true freedom and equality is far from over.

This Human Rights Day, may we be reminded of the plight of workers in South Africa who still remain subjected to inhumane working conditions and low wages. The country faces a high unemployment rate, and it is no surprise that the 2018 Afrobarometer survey findings in South Africa show that almost two-thirds (63%) of all citizens say they would be willing to forgo elections if a non-elected government or leader were able to impose law and order and provide housing and jobs.

In the face of a gender crisis, may we be reminded of the struggle for gender justice and the plight of the LGBTQIA+ community, who still face structural and compounded human rights violations. On average across 34 African countries surveyed by Afrobarometer between late 2016 and late 2018, more than one in four Africans (28%) – including 24% of women – still see wife-beating as justifiable. Let this Human Rights Day be an unrelenting reminder that more needs to be done to address the systemic and root causes of gender-based violence and gender injustice in Africa.

May we as South Africans use this time to introspect and be reminded of the plight of immigrants, refugees, economic migrants, and asylum seekers who are stripped of their human rights and dignity due to Afrophobic attitudes and violence.

Findings from the 2018 Afrobarometer survey show that a large majority of South Africans express tolerance toward immigrants and people from different ethnic groups. However, it is no secret that in South Africa, we experience a very specific kind of xenophobia, targeted at African foreign nationals. About half of respondents in that survey support proposals to bar foreigners from working in South Africa because they take jobs and benefits away from citizens (50%) and to manage the influx of foreigners by keeping refugees in camps (48%). Only 37% are of the opinion that South Africa should always accept people who are persecuted for political reasons in their own countries.  

Many of these perceptions can be traced, in part, to South Africa’s long history of apartheid and racism. Afrophobia undermines the ideology of pan-Africanism, which calls for a united Africa and an Africa without borders. As a collective, may we remain committed to ensuring the protection of human rights of all vulnerable members of society.

Human Rights Day is a commemoration, but it also continues to insist on the rights enshrined in our constitution, which are as important and relevant now as they were in 1994. Together, the events of the past and the uncertainty of the future demand that now, more than ever, our national commitment to human rights be prioritized.