Call it by its name: Sharpeville Day

Exactly 58 years ago this past Wednesday, eight-year old London Moloantoa woke up delighted there would be no school on the day. The previous day, their teacher, affectionately known as “Mistress Molebatsi”, had informed them that they were not expected at school the next day. This was due to the fact that a major protest was going to be embarked upon. What London’s mind could comprehend about the cause of the protest was very minimal.

According to his elder brother, who often acted like a commissar responsible for political education on such matters, it had to do with the carrying of pass books by African people. At the fragile age of eight, my friend London, who was unfortunately killed in a car crash in later years, was fortunately not yet mature enough to carry the dreaded document that rigidly controlled and monitored movement of all adult black people in urban areas of South Africa. However, his 16-year-old elder brother did and often displayed it proudly to his younger siblings as proof of his seniority.

Now the elder brother was informing them that the pass book he carried was not that cool after all and that it was destined to meet its demise the following day, when the carriers of the book were expected to burn the damn things and hand themselves over at the local Sharpeville Police Station for arrest. The brother further told the naive younger sibling that the protest was the brainchild of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) of which he was a member, belonging to its youth wing. The PAC was led by a certain Robert Sobukwe, who on April 6 1959 had broken away from the ANC as a result of the ideological gulf which was exacerbated by, among others, the party’s attitudes towards land ownership. While the ANC, through its generous Freedom Charter passed earlier in 1955, proclaimed that “South Africa belongs to all those who live in it”, the PAC said nix. According to the latter, South Africa was part of Africa and “Africa is for Africans”.

While the ANC embraced multiracialism, the PAC was steadfast Africanist and strongly believed in African nationalism. But I digress.

So, on March 21 1960, young London accompanied his elder brother and thousands of other Sharpeville residents on their protest march. Much detail of the day’s happenings was lost in the tract of time. What he clearly remembered was that before they could even reach the gates of the police station there was a staccato-like sound akin to that he had once heard in the local hall during the viewing of some World War movie. Suddenly, people around him started to fall like swatted flies. What saved his life was his brother who threw him on to the ground until the shooting ceased and later dragged him alongside him in a leopard crawl that could have impressed any combatant. We were in our teens when he told me this story in later years, but it still resonates in my memory like it was told yesterday.

That is the main reason I am greatly irked by the decison of our 1994 democratically elected government to dilute the significance of the day by renaming it Human Rights Day. When we grew up during apartheid years, the day was not officially acknowledged by the government of the day for obvious reasons, but all people of African descent simply called it Sharpeville Day and it was treated as an unofficial holiday. The day was simply commemorated politically, religiously and symbolically. During later years of the post-1976 Soweto Uprising era, black people stayed home and did not go to work or attend school if the day fell during the week. It was not a day to celebrate anything, least of all human rights. Instead, it was a day when black society paused to mourn and reflect on one the bleakest periods of apartheid regime atrocities committed on its African citizens.

The same could be said about the June 16 Soweto Day, which, with the same post-1994 reconciliatory sentiment, was watered down to Youth Day. The day has now been reduced to celebrations and partying by today’s youth instead of being a sombre one befitting the spirits of those youthful lives that were lost in their fight for the dignity to be taught in their own language.

Another compromise by our current government was when, with reckless impunity, it decided to not only plagiarise the African national anthem composed in 1897 by Enoch Sontonga – Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika – but even went as far as transforming it into a hybrid format that further emphasised the racial divisions of the country. All this was done in the naive spirit of reconciliation and social cohesion, but the unintended results prove the opposite. Even up to this day, when sung at official events, one still easily notices how different races passionately indulge in one sector relevant to their language background. I suggest that the new President Cyril Ramaphosa-led government correct this historical error and allow the country to sing the original version in the name of national unity.

My prognosis is that South African history must be told boldly as it happened. It must not be conveniently altered or sanitised to suit the political mood as espoused through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. So, let us sombrely remember Sharpeville Day as just that. Let us not dilute the historical significance of the day by being immersed in the political rivalry which led to it now being meekly regarded as Human Rights Day. Like our national anthem and Soweto Day, let us not continue to be willing accomplices in the national cosmetic distortion of our historical symbols.

- Maisela is a management consultant and published author

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