South Africa’s Human Rights Day, 21
March – declared International Day for
the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
by the UN – is synonymous with an
innocuous but historic township,
Sharpeville, situated between the
industrial cities of Vanderbijlpark and
Vereeniging about 50 kilometres south of Johannesburg.
For many South Africans, the day will
always remain Sharpeville Day, a
commemoration of the 21 March 1960
Sharpeville massacre, when the police
mowed down 69 unarmed people and
injured 180 others who refused to carry
the hated dompas identity document
that was meant only for indigenous
Africans. The day, sometimes also
referred to as Heroes’ Day, was a
watershed in the country’s liberation
struggle, hence its inclusion in South
Africa’s post-apartheid holiday calendar.
What happened on that day?
More than 50 years on, the question still surfaces: what exactly happened on that fateful morning?
Joe Tlholoe, one of the country’s most
prolific journalists, who was a high
school pupil at the time, wrote years
later: “With hindsight, 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,” Tlholoe wrote.
“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 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. “That is the simple story that historians will relate,” Tlholoe wrote. “The real story was a more complex mixture of pain and grief, suffering, anger and courage, that is best left to izimbongi, the African epic poets, to tell.”