Human Rights Day in South Africa commemorates the struggle in the fight for democracy and serves to remember all of those who fought (and lost their lives) to obtain it.
On 21 March 1960, approximately 7,000 people engaged in a peaceful protest outside of a police station in the Sharpeville township as they demonstrated against pass laws. The police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people in total, injuring hundreds more. A total of 10 children died, one of which was Hector Pieterson – a photograph of his lifeless body has become an iconic symbol of the fight against apartheid since.
The anti-pass laws campaign was spearheaded by the Pan African Congress (PAC), which encouraged members of the community to gather and burn their pass books in an act of peaceful defiance, offering themselves up for arrest in the process. The police panicked at what they claimed was a large crowd that was turning increasingly aggressive, consequently opening fire on the crowd and shooting many people in the back as they fled, leaving numerous paralyzed as a result.
The Sharpeville Massacre sent shock-waves throughout the globe, with widespread condemnation and disgust at the country’s blatant disregard for the lives of black people and the inhumane laws in place which aimed to uphold the segregation of blacks and whites.
In 1994, Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress (ANC), formally declared 21 March Human Rights Day in South Africa. A Bill of Rights was passed, fundamentally changing South Africa’s constitution by granting all persons the right to citizenship, security, freedom of assembly, opinion and expression. The existence of these basic human rights aims to solidify us all through values of equality, freedom, and human dignity, which each and every person is entitled to, and aims to do away with a history of oppression, colonialism, slavery, racism and sexism, along with other forms of human violations.
How Can You Commemorate Human Rights Day?
- Take a trip to a museumto gain insight into the political history of South Africa. Two of our top picks are the Apartheid Museum (located in Johannesburg) and the Hector Pieterson Museum (located in Soweto).
- Visit a memorial site. The Sharpeville memorial sites include Phelindaba Cemeterywhich houses the graves of the 69 victims of the Sharpeville Massacre, the Sharpeville Memorial Garden, which contains a Memorial Wall, built from clay brick with a row of steel columns along the outer edge, with a flag situated atop of each column, and the police station where the protest took place.
- Watch a documentary that explores the history and effects of a segregated South Africa. Some of the most inspiring and informative are I, Afrikaner, Miners Shot Down, The Vula Connectionand Nelson Mandela: The Myth & Me.
- Keep an eye open for any commemorative eventsthat might be taking place on this day and invite friends and family to share in the experience with you.
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