Today, March 21, is Human Rights Day in South Africa, a national holiday. The date is no coincidence. On 21 March 1960 Apartheid police opened fire on a crowd gathered at Sharpeville (by the PAC) to protest apartheid Pass Laws. 69 killed, scores wounded (although the generally agreed upon totals are about 180 the reality is that since people knew that going to hospital might result in their being identified as having been at Sharpeville, those who could avoided any official institution, hospitals and clinics included) most of those shot in the back and side, indicating that they were running away and posed no danger whatsoever.
Sharpeville shocked the world and helped to accelerate the nascent global anti-apartheid movement, even as the National Party responded with draconian measures that ensured that any opposition to apartheid whatsoever could land people in prison, in exile, or worse. Sharpeville was almost inarguably the single most important event in bringing the realities of apartheid to the world’s consciousness, and the country’s status as a polecat of a nation was pretty well guaranteed from that date forward.
But that is not the only reason why 21 March is such an important date in South African history. 25 years to the day after the events of Sharpeville, 21 March 1981, another horrible atrocity happened the contours of which are gruesomely familiar. On that day a funeral party was traveling between townships of Uitenhage, an industrial city outside of Port Elizabeth (some 130 or so km from where I sit in Grahamstown) known most for automobile manufacturing (South Africa’s Detroit, in effect). Township funerals in the 1980s were most often political affairs and this one -- honoring the deaths of young people killed in protests earlier in the month -- was no different. The state had effectively made funeral processions of this sort illegal. Police showed up on the scene, the funeral marchers -- defiant, but unarmed -- stood their ground, and the police opened fire. Nearly a score lay dead, an uncountable number wounded, shot, you guessed it, in the back and in the side. It came to be known as the Langa Massacre.
There are active debates about the nature of “the human rights tradition” in South Africa, and these are important arguments. But at the same time, if we recognize that apartheid was itself a gross violation of civil rights and that the anti-apartheid opposition was at least to some degree motivated by a desire for human rights, broadly defined, it is perhaps easier to understand why this date, 21 March, the anniversary of Sharpeville, the anniversary of Langa, is so well chosen.