Tinyiko Maluleke | Sharpeville and the map of our bloody country

Every year in March, South Africa celebrates Human Rights Day because of the Sharpeville massacre which happened on March 21 in 1960.PHOTO: sourced
Every year in March, South Africa celebrates Human Rights Day because of the Sharpeville massacre which happened on March 21 in 1960.PHOTO: sourced

The time has come for us to stop avoiding, euphemising, and sanitising the Sharpeville Massacre as well as other atrocities of police brutality, writes Tinyiko Maluleke.


Here is a map of our country

here is the Sea of Indifference, glazed with salt

This is the haunted river flowing from brow to groin

we dare not taste its water

… This is the cemetery of the poor who died for democracy…

These are the suburbs of acquiescence

silence rising fume-like from the streets

(Adrienne Rich)

Let's look closely, inside the ‘map’ of our own country, in the light of the Sharpeville Massacre.

We too will find, among others, a sea of indifference, several blood rivers, deserts littered with the corpses of the poor who died for democracy, and many places of acquiescence and silence. 

The Sharpeville Massacre must be situated amid similar massacres that have punctuated our history for 300 years.

The time has come for us to stop avoiding, euphemising, and sanitising Sharpeville.

We must call it what it was - a butchering of 69 innocent souls and the injuring of 180 others. 

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Through a history of massacres from the Sir George Grey massacre of 1857 up to the Marikana massacre of 2012, it is possible to ‘draw a map’ of South Africa’s bloody history in terms of a catalogue of massacres.

Part of the roots of the brutality and the dysfunctionality of contemporary South African society must be traced back to our wilful inability to come to terms with the litany of massacres that have characterised our history: The Bulhoek Massacre (1921), the miners strike massacres (1913, 1922), the anti-pass massacre (1930), the Marabastad municipal workers massacre (1943), the miners’ strike massacre (1946), the Durban riots massacre (1946), and the protest against the banning of the Communist Party massacre (1950), and many others.      

For the sake of illustration, we delve briefly into selected massacres. 

The Sir George Grey Massacre

Sometime in 1856, two young girls, Nongqawuse and Nombada, were on duty, chasing birds off the mealie fields by the river Gxarha when some strangers arrived.

They pulled Nongqawuse aside and whispered prophesies about killing cattle and people rising from the dead into her ears.

Excitedly, Nongqawuse ran across the field, down the valley and up the hill to deliver the message to her uncle and adoptive father, Mhlakaza.

After receiving the message of the strangers, Mhlakaza became the cattle-killing evangelist-in-chief. So goes the story.

Historians have not been able to establish the identity of the strangers who whispered into the ears of Nongqawuse.

Were they ancestors, or were they envoys from the Cape Colony Governor, Sir George Grey?

What has been established is that in those days, Grey’s government was tightening the noose around the necks of the amaXhosa. He came to the Cape Colony with the ignoble reputation of crookedness and ruthlessness cultivated during his time as colonial ruler in New Zealand. 

While many chroniclers do not think that Grey can be blamed for issuing the instructions that led to the cattle killing tragedy, historian Jeffrey Peires has noted that, “... while the Xhosa nation was lying prostrate and defenceless, Sir George Grey, … exiled the starving, crushed the survivors, and seized more than half of Xhosa land for a colony of white settlement”.

By the end of it all, 40 000 people had died.

A massacre by any other name is still a massacre.

The Bulhoek Massacre

Sixty-five years later, in May 1921, a defiant crowd of worshippers, under the leadership of one Enoch Mgijima, occupied a piece of land at Ntabelanga outside Bulhoek in the Eastern Cape.

Declaring the ground sacred, they refused to move. From around 1912, Mgijima had been preaching to the locals about a looming catastrophe. 

To the followers of Mgijima, known as the Israelites, the promulgation of the 1913 Land Act which legalised and intensified African land dispossession; the eruption of World War 1 (1914) with thousands of young African men conscripted in various capacities; the sinking of the SS Mendi Passenger steamship (1917); the breaking out of the influenza epidemic (1918); and the punishing drought of the 1920s, all served to confirm the coming of the cataclysm of which Mgijima had prophesied. 

By defiantly installing themselves at Ntabelanga, the Israelites were laying claim to a piece of land at a time land was being taken away from Africans, insisting on the dignity of their humanity at a time when the dignity of African people was being eroded.

At a time of great social and economic upheavals, Mgijima offered solace to his followers in the form of a radical re-interpretation of the Christian message. 

On Tuesday, 24 May 1921, after some half-hearted attempts to ‘negotiate’ with Mgijima, the Union police opened fire on the Israelites, mowing down 183 to 225 people, injuring a total of 130 others in the process.

Sharpeville: A turning point or not?

Was Sharpeville a turning point?

Insofar as it was one of the factors that caused both the PAC and the ANC to resort to the armed struggle, and insofar as the massacre drew the attention of the international community on apartheid atrocities, it was a turning point.

However, it did prevent the precipitation of many several subsequent atrocities in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s.

Had Sharpeville been an unmitigated turning point, the Soweto students’ protests of 1976, the Bisho, and the Boipatong massacres would not have occurred. 

Not to be outdone by apartheid South Africa, democratic South Africa went ahead and registered its little atrocities, the Marikana Massacre.

A Country of Restless Spirits – Dead and Alive 

To end his book on the Sharpeville, Tom Lodge notes that, “... for so many of Sharpeville’s inhabitants, their homeplace remains a vicinity of restless spirits, tormented ghosts”.

The reason for this is the situation, is our reticence, even in post-apartheid South Africa, to call it what it was.

For example, we have elected to name the date of the Sharpeville Massacre, Human Rights Day.

The same reluctance to call Marikana a massacre has been evident in the final report of the Farlam Commission.

They speak only of the, “... tragic incidents at Lonmin mine in Marikana”,  as if Marikana was a natural disaster! 

Here is a Map of our Bloody Country.

To conclude, we return to the poetic map of our country, with which we opened the article. So, here is the river Gxarha in which flows the blood of 40 000 South Africans.

There is Ntabelanga, the sacred hill upon which up to 200 black saints were slaughtered.

Here is Leeukuil, a dam outside Sharpeville, over whose waters spirits of the living-dead hover, day and night.

Here are the ugly boulders of Wonderkop in Marikana, where 34 men were slaughtered.

READ | Songezo Zibi: Our murderous police are a deliberate political outcome

And here is an incomplete list of other post-apartheid victims of state brutality: Andries Tatane, Collins Khosa, Sibusiso Amos, Elma Robyn Montsumi, Petrus Miggels, Adane Emmanuel, Ntando Elias Sigasa, Nathaniel Julius, and Mthokozisi Ntumba. 

Here is my bet: Until and unless we rename Human Rights Day into Sharpeville Day, or better still, Robert Sobukwe Day, our country will continue to be, “... a vicinity of restless spirits”, dead and alive.

- Professor Tinyiko Maluleke is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria Center for the Advancement of Scholarship. 


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