Why we commemorate Human Rights Day

2016-03-23 06:00

HOW many South Africans, who enjoyed Monday 21 March, as a public holiday - Human Rights Day - actually know why it is commemorated. It has also been declared by the UN as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

To many South Africans, in particular the older generations, 21 March is known as Sharpeville Day. On 21 March, 1960, the day on which 69 unarmed people were killed by the police and a further 180 injured when they marched to the police station without the hated “dompas” that had to be carried as identification by all black men. The pass laws were designed to tighten state control over the movement of black South Africans.

According to reports of witnesses as the masses marched towards the police they panicked and opened fire, killing 69. There was anger throughout the country’s townships with many more deaths recorded. In the aftermath of the massacre the Nationalist government declared a state of emergency and thousands were arrested throughout the country. On 8 April, 1960, then Prime Minister Hendrick Verwoerd banned the ANC and PAC resulting in a protracted armed struggle for 30 years. In 1986, under heavy international pressure, then prime minister, P.W. Botha repealed the pass and influx control laws that had curtailed movement.

Since the signing of South Africa’s new Constitution signed by its first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, in Sharpeville on 8 May, 1996, many laws protecting basic individual rights have been passed.

On 21 March, 2001, the Sharpeville human rights memorial was unveiled on the site outside the police station where the 69 men women and children had been shot. Their names are displayed on the memorial plaque.

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