OPINION | Human Rights Day: Sharpeville at 60 - will we ever overpower apartheid’s ghosts?

Today it is difficult, almost impossible, to talk about the matters of old, says the writer. (Daily Sun, file)
Today it is difficult, almost impossible, to talk about the matters of old, says the writer. (Daily Sun, file)

There are moments when I believe we are still not listening to each other; almost as if we never learn. It is not only the older generation that have to listen to each other, we also have to listen to the millennials, writes Leon Wessels.


Professor Njabulo Ndebele - academic, writer and for many years the chairperson of the Nelson Mandela Foundation - and I often enjoyed breakfast in February 2010 when we were research fellows at Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (Stias).

During one of our regular morning chats he told me about his reaction when he heard of the Sharpeville tragedy.

As a twelve-year-old, he and his grandfather always sat in the kitchen and listened to the evening news.

He vividly remembers the 7pm news on 21 March 1960 - that was the moment when they heard of the shootings in Sharpeville when 69 protesters were killed and 180 injured earlier that day.

"First it was disgust, then anger - and then the terrible sadness."

In my mind's eye I could see him and his granddad huddled around the radio. Bewildered! Devastated!

We sat in silence. I was filled with sadness that I had been so indifferent when such a catastrophe happened.

After telling, Sello Hatang, CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation of the discussion I had with Ndebele, we decided to visit Sharpeville.

We drove around, did a walkabout, observed the graves, the museum and listened to the guide at the police station.

As we walked to my car, pondering everything that we had experienced that day, an elderly gentleman walked by.

We greeted and started talking. He was one of the protesters. He was in the crowd when the shooting started. There was mayhem.

That was the moment when the scene came alive for me: angry protesters, nervous policemen firing gunshots, shouting, screaming, commotion, people running in all directions.

Bodies sprawled on the roadway of the square.

Roads outside the police station covered in blood.

My emotions bolted when I listened to this eyewitness account.

For me Sharpeville had come full circle: uprising, tragedy, catastrophe and now what it was – massacre!

Nelson Mandela reached out to the victims on 10 December 1996 when the Constitution was signed at the George Thabe stadium.

I met some of them, but there was no time to talk.

They seemed excited that they could witness this historic moment.

They had every reason to believe their struggle for democracy and a better life was over.

Constitutional words on paper are very patient, for many those ringing constitutional phrases remain words on paper.

What was the state of mind of the policemen when the sun set on 21 March 1960?

Did anyone ever support them to find closure? Did they manage to grow old gently? I am embarrassed that I did nothing to reach out to them.

They were the face of the hated National Party policies.

Why did it take National Party politicians - myself included - so long to come to grips with the humiliation of the influx control measures; forcing people to always carry a dompas?

It is easy to speak out 60 years after the event but I find Verwoerd's words  " ... the black masses of South Africa ... are orderly ... " , "faithful to the government of the country" and that the disturbances were caused by a "few troublemakers" (Welsh D, The rise and fall of Apartheid, [2009] p. 73.) heartless and cold-blooded.

It is words like these that forced me in the early nineties to apologise “that I had been so hard of hearing” and that apartheid "blighted our land”.

There are moments when I believe we are still not listening to each other; almost as if we never learn. It is not only the older generation that have to listen to each other, we also have to listen to the millennials.

Every generation has to take ownership for its time. The battles fought by different generations and the strategies to deal with the challenges differ.

The older generation lived with dangerous weapons in armed conflict, the younger generation live with cellphones and computers in cyberspace; the older generation wanted to be free, the younger generation demands a better life; the older generation wanted to be acknowledged as citizens in the land of their birth, the younger generation wants to belong and share in the wealth of the land of their birth.

Today it is difficult, almost impossible, to talk about the matters of old.

Young people do not know what happened because they are busy building careers and chasing their own dreams.

Those in power will have to pull up their socks and the rich and famous will have to dig deep into their pockets to attract the attention of this generation.

There is no future without the participation of the millennials.

If this does not happen, old apartheid ghosts will not be overpowered.

- Dr Leon Wessels was deputy chairperson of the Constituent Assembly between 1994 and 1996 and later became a human rights commissioner. 

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. 

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