The importance of remembering Sharpeville

Today, in 1960, 69 South African protestors were shot and killed by the police outside the police station in Sharpeville. A crowd of seven thousand had presented themselves to the police station to be arrested for transgressing the so-called ‘pass laws’, which restricted their movement under the apartheid laws. This widespread act of peaceful, passive resistance was met with force: the South African air force flew jets low over the heads of the crowd, and then a police officer gave the order to open fire. The crowd was armed only with rocks. Most of the dead were shot in the back, trying to leave the area.

The government tried to blame the massacre on a young police officer who panicked. Thirty years later, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard evidence that the massacre was deliberate. Today, the anniversary stands as a national day of human rights in South Africa. In 1996, President Nelson Mandela stood on the site of the Sharpeville Massacre to sign the new South African constitution, committing his nation to racial equality and freedom under the law.

It is sometimes hard to appreciate the achievement of the peoples of South Africa in forging a new state out of apartheid. Like most revolutions, those living through it find it difficult to see the bigger picture. When I was in Soweto a couple of years ago, there were people washing their cars and mowing their lawns, outside newly-refurbished houses. There was still poverty. You could see drugs dealers on the outskirts of the township. But the place has been transformed. This is a fine thing that the ANC has done.

What impressed me most was the creation of monuments and museums to the apartheid era, and the struggle against it. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission served as a vital process of catharsis. It stands as a model for tackling the pain, grief and hatred in post-conflict situations. We will need to do the same in the Middle East, once democracy has taken hold.

Yet the South African government has made no attempt to diminish or obscure the memory of apartheid. At the apartheid museum in Johannesburg, you can sit on park benches marked ‘white’ and ‘black’ in Afrikaans, stand under the towering Casspir armoured personnel vehicles which drove into the crowds during the township uprisings (and I can tell you, they’re huge), and stand witness to the international struggle against apartheid. There are some grainy photos of the Anti-Apartheid Movements demonstrations in London, with 1980s students in their doctor martens and donkey jackets.

When South Africa falls below the standard it has set itself, it breaks the heart of everyone who marched, sang or refused to eat Cape oranges. At the Marikana mine in August last year, 46 miners were shot dead by the police. There is evidence that the police planted weapons on the bodies, and that some were executed, shot in the back of the head. A massacre of any kind is an outrage. It is an affront to our common humanity. But when it happens in South Africa, it seems so much worse. The only answer is that the South African government must arrest the perpetrators and make them stand trial. Justice must be seen to be done, in a land where it was so hard-won.

Today, we should remember the dead at Sharpeville. It is also a chance to reflect on the massacres being commemorated in Halabja, Iraq, when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurdish Iraqis; or the thousands of dead in Syria, where the civilian death-toll will soon outstrip that of the entire conflict in Iraq, and four million people have been displaced. In a week when most people’s awareness of international events is summarised in the trite piety of Red Nose Day, we should focus on the violent injustices in our own times, and reflect on what should be done to end them.

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