Guest Column

The children of KwaLanga are not dead: Do human rights apply to all equally?

2018-03-15 10:12
Some of the coffins of the 69 people who were killed in Sharpeville on 21 March 1960. (Twitter)

Some of the coffins of the 69 people who were killed in Sharpeville on 21 March 1960. (Twitter)

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Mcebo Freedom Dlamini

When you think about the events that might have played out in Sharpeville you are immediately disconcerted.

You think death, guns, bodies on the floor and running. You think of an old woman shot in her neck while running. You see her stretched on the ground with her breasts exposed. You think of a tall, dark figure walking in front of the masses with people shuffling against each other, fighting for a turn to say something to him. 

You think Sobukwe. You think of children screaming but then they disappear into the crowd. You think of parents who lost their children and children who had to mother themselves. You think of voices shouting "Mayibuye!" and "Amandla!" from a distance. 

When you think of Sharpeville, you remember all the things that might have been deliberately forgotten. You think of a time where there was little room for fear – a time where all that mattered was to make it to the protest. 

It is almost 49 years since the Sharpeville and Langa massacres took place. On March 21, 1960 the apartheid government sanctioned the mass slaughter of black people who were protesting against being treated as outcasts in the land of their forefathers. 

This moment in history is usually narrated as a protest where blacks were merely protesting against the carrying of passes in order to have access to certain spaces that were only reserved for white people. 

Sharpeville also about land

But they were demanding more than that. The martyrs of Langa and Sharpeville were not only challenging discriminatory actions and unfair relations. When they decided to protest they had already formulated, extensively, ideas around land as the most important precept if black people are to attain true freedom. They had already identified the return of land, not only as rectification of a historical injustice, but as a necessity if blacks are to recreate themselves anew. They had already resolved that the land question is inextricably linked to the question of ontology, the question of being and identity.

The protest, which was led by the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), was a moment of resistance by people who had been turned into "objects amid objects" by a brutal system which meted violence against them without "transgression as a precondition". 

They were resisting against a system which refused to recognise them as humans and oppressed them simply because they were black and they were there.

The events leading up to March 21, the day of the massacre, as they appear in the few remaining records, show that the apartheid government saw black people as non-beings that they could violate and dispossess without consequence. They did not see humans.

Were black people meant to be incorporated into the human rights discourse? 

Today, the day of the massacre is celebrated as Human Rights Day. The idea of human rights is not without a particular history. The conceptualisation of human rights is said to be a response to the many atrocities that took place around the world.

The idea of human rights was long established during the tyrannical period of apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid as legislation endured for a period of more than 50 years under the watch of the United Nations and other human rights organisations that have the responsibility of ensuring that the rights of all people everywhere are protected. This reality invites us to question whether or not, from the very conception, black people were meant to be incorporated into the human rights discourse. 

The celebration of this day invites us to think about whether or not there has been a mark of punctuation in history, or whether there has just been a "historical continuum" as Jared Sexton would say. 

This is to ask, have the conditions that created the happening of the massacre been altered or have they remained the same?

To continue celebrating the day means we ought to ask whether or not people who were dehumanised for hundreds of years are now being protected by human rights. To what extent has the existence of these rights under constitutionalism been effective?  

'Apartheid still permeates the fabric of our present'

In South Africa certain gestures and manifestations of power that anchored the apartheid order still exist even today. This stasis in how power is structured shows that human rights "for all" did not present a tabula rasa.  

Post 1994 the townships which were created by the apartheid regime were not abated and the conditions of those who live in townships were not radically changed. These congested spaces are still sites of death and violence even today. Black people are still living below the poverty line, economic and social hierarchies that existed during the apartheid period have not changed. The land which 69 people died for in less than four hours during the massacre has not been returned.

A white minority still owns the land and therefore the resources beneath and above it. It would be parochialism to argue that the abject condition of black people is not a result of the effects of apartheid. The "past" that is apartheid still permeates the very fabric of our present.

Black people have oscillated back and forth in search of humanity. In the wake of Parliament passing the motion to review the Constitution in order to effect land expropriation without compensation shows that the "children of Langa" are not dead.  

This is an important move in ensuring that those who were stripped of the humanity regain their humanness. Acknowledging the economic and political realities of black people will enable us to have honest conversations about what human rights are and to what extent they have/will be able to ameliorate the conditions that are still faced by a majority of black people.  

Embracing them without critique can only bear the result of sustaining the status quo and the status quo is an unpleasant place for the poor, who also happen to be black. 

- Dlamini is a former Wits SRC President and student activist. He writes in his personal capacity.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    mcebo dlamini  |  sharpeville  |  land expropriation  |  human rights day  |  apartheid


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