We can never forget

2012-03-24 10:26

Ntate Thabo Motaung carries an important piece of history.

Unlike the certificate he received from former president Nelson Mandela after testifying at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Motaung cannot see this significant piece of history.

Yet he knows it’s there – a bullet lodged in his back for 52 years. The piece of lead that almost took his life is the source of his constant aches and semi-paralysis.

Sometimes he sits up at night, memories of that fateful day replaying in his mind as if it happened just yesterday.

He sees himself rolling in the dust among the crowds seeking safety behind the wall of the library opposite Sharpeville Police Station.

He is rattled by the staccato sound of automatic gunfire, and people screaming from the pain of being ripped apart by bullets.

But it is the sight of a man who had been hit in the shoulder, his bloodied hand dangling by a muscle, that troubles him most.

He’s troubled by recollections from others, of people mistaken for dead suddenly springing to life from under a pile of dead bodies.

He thinks of the bodies of women and children sprawled in the dust, the life snuffed out of them simply because they dared challenge the state for the right to free movement in the land of their birth.

“I will never forget! Never!” Motaung replied when asked if he could erase the memories of that day. “People died. How can I forget?”

March 21 1960 was a sunny Monday. Thousands of people had responded to PAC president Robert Sobukwe’s call to stay away from work that day, arrive at the police station without their passes and demand to be jailed in protest against the pass laws.

By mid-morning thousands had gathered at Sharpeville Police Station. Sobukwe had led a march to ­Orlando Police Station, where he was promptly arrested.

“The police kept telling us to wait for someone to come from Pretoria to attend to our demands.

“We were singing, Senzeni naaa. We wanted to know why we had to carry ­passes in our land. Next thing we heard papapapapaapapa. I thought it was firecrackers. But when I saw people falling about, I realised it was machine guns. They were shooting at us,” said Motaung.

When the men behind the machine-guns had satisfied their lust for blood, 69 people lay dead in the dust. Hundreds of others, including Motaung, lay injured, shocked from the horror of what they had just experienced.

Many of the dead, including women and children, were shot in the back as they fled from the gunfire.

In pictures taken that day, some people are seen trying to shield themselves from bullets with their shirts.

“Even to this day I cannot understand why we were shot. We were only demanding our rights as citizens of this country. We wanted to know why we had to carry passes when whites didn’t have to,” said Motaung.

In the weeks following the shooting, the National Party government banned the ANC and the PAC, jailed most of its leadership and forced many others into political exile.

After he was shot, he was piled into an ambulance with hundreds of others and driven to Baragwanath hospital. He spent three months there, unable to walk.

One day, a police truck arrived, and an announcement was made that Sharpeville victims were being discharged.

To his surprise and horror, still wearing the bloodied clothes from the day he was shot, Motaung found himself locked up in a Boksburg prison. He spent a year in jail with 13 others, charged with public violence.

A day after his release, he got a distressing visit from the special branch to tell him he was under house arrest.

“I lived in constant fear. It was a hard life because I could not go any where. The police could come at any time to check up on me,” he said.

Motaung is semi-paralysed.

“Doctors can do nothing for me now. This is my life,” he said, explaining that last year he was advised to buy a special chair to support his back. Today, on the eve of the 52nd anniversary of the massacre, he sits on that chair watching the streets of Sharpeville go up in flames.

As we sit talking in his yard, we can hear the roar of youths who have gathered in Seeiso Street, the site of the massacre, to protest against government’s decision to hold the main Human Rights Day commemoration at the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication in Kliptown, Soweto.

Motaung is also disappointed. The bones of those who fell are buried here in Sharpeville, so he sees no logic in commemorating the day elsewhere. On the streets of the township, even young children know the events of that day.

On Wednesday morning, scores of youths pour into the Sharpeville Garden of Remembrance, where 69 plaques have been erected in honour of the fallen.

Michael Kgafela (48) walks quietly around the garden, carefully lifting up the wreaths laid on top of the plaques to look at their names. He is looking for no one in particular.

His father, a veteran of World War II, told him he’d been at the protest that day, but when he saw airforce planes flying low over the township, decided to head for home, sensing danger.

Moments later, the tragedy unfolded.

“I was not born yet. But my father told me it was very sad. And walking around here, it pains me a lot that most of the people that died were young,” he said.

Motsheoa Sefatsa (35) has brought her 11-year-old daughter Lerato to the garden to observe the day on which her great-grandfather, Johannes Sealanyane, was killed.

“When I was growing up the elders taught me about this day. Now I want my daughter to grow up knowing what happened to our people,” she said.

Motaung recalls that back in 1960, ­after the injured were carried to hospital and the dead to the morgue, rain suddenly fell to wash away the blood that had soaked the land.

Late on Wednesday afternoon, as the crowds that had gathered to commemorate the day sang freedom songs, history repeated itself when rain fell on Sharpeville again.

Was it perhaps a salute from the gods to the memory of the fallen?

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