A day characterised by human tragedy

2010-03-18 00:00

WE lived in an L-shaped corrugated-iron house. It was spacious and had been well built, both by my father, a driver and furniture polisher at a furniture dealer in Vereeniging, and my grandfather, a carpenter. Vukuzenzele, popularly known as Vuka, was a newly established extension of Sharpeville Township. It was an area designated for black families who were forcefully removed from Top Location where they had held freehold title deeds, to make way for white residential areas and commercial enterprises.

Both my father and my grandfather frequently indulged in politics. I often observed gatherings at the nearby blacksmith where my grandfather and Mr Phakathi (the blacksmith) would be reading and at the same time interpreting the daily political bulletins to their audience of coal merchants and vehicle owners who had come to get their horses new shoes and their vehicles renewed sets of shock absorbers. The question that often triggered excitement among them was always “Unthini u Verwoerd namhlanje?” (What is [Hendrik] Verwoerd saying today?), followed by “kodwa um Afrika yena uthi” (but the African is saying this). The political discussion usually took most of the day. I knew this because my older brother worked for the blacksmith and I was always welcomed to run errands for my grandfather.

This was one of the many formative occasions when I learnt about Verwoerd and his people, and that they were largely responsible for the laws that made the African people — men, women and children — suffer. I must say that at the age of 13 I was being initiated into the “collective historical consciousness of the African political thinking”. The afternoon and night of March 20, 1960, revealed nothing suspicious for me. Moreover, at that tender age I could not clearly have imagined or let alone predicted the political fortunes of a township about to be engulfed by human tragedy, characterised by dead and maimed people, tears, fears and rage.

The dark early hours of the morning of March 21 saw widespread calls through loud hailers and thousands of pamphlets in the streets urging the people of Sharpeville not to go to work on that day, but to converge at the police station to protest against the carrying of passes and, if need be, to burn them in the full glare of the authorities. Obviously schoolteachers were not going to teach that day and so school children took the opportunity to give themselves a break from school. Later that morning some of us joined our old folks at the Sharpeville Central Police Station.

As the day progressed, the protesting crowd around the police station began to swell and with thumbs raised high, the people chanted loudly “iAfrika Mayibuye”.

From where I stood, I could spot the occasional movement of the African negotiators in and out of the front office of the police station, and every time they made an appearance, they would raise their thumbs high shouting “iAfrika” and the crowd would echo “Mayibuye”. By that time a heavily armed contingent of police was prowling inside the station yard and more were arriving in police trucks and Saracens. Meanwhile, the attempts by the people’s negotiators led by the late Nyakane Tsolo continued as previously, followed by the chants of “Mayibuye”.

It was past the lunch hour when a rumour began circulating that police officials wanted people to move away from the police station and gather at the nearby sports field, now known as George Thabe Stadium, about two kilometres away. The people made no movement in that direction and what happened next made me believe that had the people moved towards that sports field, many more people would have been maimed and killed.

First, it was the shattering sound of one shot then silence. The chanting stopped abruptly and was immediately followed by rapid gunfire, and waves of protesters stampeded away from the fence and gates of the police station as the firing became fierce. This time it sounded more like a combination of rifles and machine-gun fire. I could not see what exactly was happening behind me because, like everybody else, I was running away from the police station as fast as I could. The gunfire was both frightening and confusing, and there was an instant where I rushed through a gate into a yard frantically looking for sanctuary only to jump over the fence back into the street again where droves of people were running away. I remember vividly the image of a man running past me, his bloody hand clutching his left shoulder, as if to prevent his whole arm from falling off, and the back of his overalls were soaked in blood. The man had been shot. Frightened as I was, ironically I heard him say, “Ngiyitholile iAfrika yami” (I found my Africa). It did not take long to reach home where I became more frightened when I did not see my father or grandfather. When the shooting stopped, it began to rain hard, perhaps God’s way of washing away the blood and tears of his fallen people. My folks came back unharmed, but without the car, which was fetched later from the police station. (It was later discovered that the bullet that went through the right mudguard of my father’s car shattered the hipbone of the woman who was standing next to it. The car can be seen in pictures taken on that day).

 

• Ben Skosana is an IFP member of Parliament.

 

The Sharpeville massacre, also known as the Sharpeville shootings, occurred on March 21, 1960, when South African police opened fire on black protesters, killing 69 people. The confrontation occurred in the township of Sharpeville, in what is now Gauteng.

Sunday is the 50th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre. BEN SKOSANA was there.

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