“I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of human rights,” said Desmond Tutu in January 1985. Though almost thirty years have passed – and we now celebrate a Human Rights Day as a nation – it’s fair to say the ‘full menu’ of human rights is perhaps not yet on offer to all South Africans.
21 March saw us mark Human Rights Day in South Africa. The day commemorates what President Jacob Zuma described as a ‘sad day’ in South Africa’s history. But, ‘sad day’ is an understatement, to put it mildly. On the 21st of March 1960, under the grips of the repressive apartheid regime, thousands of South Africans decided to protest against ‘passbooks’, ceremoniously burning their passbooks outside the local Sharpeville police station. Though the protestors posed no threat or immediate danger, the police infamously opened fire – killing 69 people and injuring many, many more.
I remember learning about the Sharpeville massacre in history class as a young impressionable schoolgirl. What struck me most then – and what continues to plague my conscience – is the problematic and gut-wrenching fact that the majority of the 69 dead protestors were shot in the back while trying to run away from the trigger-happy police. After the Sharpeville Massacre, the Prime Minister at the time, Hendrik Verwoerd, declared a ‘state of emergency’ in South Africa, claiming the passbook protestors had ‘shot first’. This despite the total absence of guns or any other kind of weapons on or near their dead bodies.
A massacre in our time, and we’re no longer under apartheid
Fast-forward over 50 years and South Africa has another Sharpeville-like massacre to hang our heads in shame over. This time, almost twenty years into our democracy, police gunned down 34 striking miners at Marikana. The event, now dubbed the Marikana Massacre, is currently being investigated by the Farlam Commission. So far, the testimony has been grave, highlighting a growing sense of police ineptitude and disregard for human life.
Just a few weeks ago, the Commission heard how miners were fatally shot down, despite putting up their arms in the ‘surrender’ position. Newspaper headlines read ‘miners shot execution style’. It’s also alleged that police later planted weapons next to the miners’ dead bodies in an attempt to insinuate the police acted out of self-defence. The Farlam Commission has also heard that extra ammunition was ordered in the prelude to the massacre and, chillingly, mortuary vans were also ordered to be on standby.
President Jacob Zuma seems unperturbed by these recent revelations. Waxing lyrical about Human Rights Day to a packed George Thabe cricket pitch in Sharpeville, he said, “We also recall thousands of others who died in many other massacres and assassinations engineered by the apartheid regime during the period of apartheid colonialism.” While his sentiment is correct – many people did regrettably lose their lives in the struggle against apartheid – his blatant playing of the ‘apartheid card’ screams of a man who is unwilling to acknowledge that a massacre at the hands of the police has happened under his watch.
Another shooting at Sharpeville in 2010
Adding insult to injury, he said, “We now live in a thriving constitutional democracy with equal citizenship for all and a respect for human rights and dignity.” I’m pretty certain nothing about the fateful events on 16 August 2012 – the Marikana massacre – demonstrated ‘a respect for human rights and dignity’. In addition to this, in a great twist of irony, Sharpeville experienced another mass protest in 2010, 50 years after the infamous Sharpeville Massacre. At this protest, as if nothing was learnt from history, police opened fire. Abram Mokoena, a Sharpeville resident who was present at both the 1960 and the 2010 protests, told local Gauteng daily newspaper, The Star: “just like today, people were running in all directions and dying like flies”.
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Hofni Mosesi, of the Concerned Residents of Sharpeville, pointed to the irony of a second bout of Sharpeville protests being met by gun-wielding police officers. He said, “It blurs the difference between the Apartheid government and our government. We feel bitter about it if it happens today, if it’s done by the government we voted into power.”
Unlike under apartheid, protestors were not protesting against a repressive regime. Instead they were protesting for their basic rights and services – oft promised emptily to them by the government – such as sanitation, employment, tarred roads and housing. Protesting for the basic fulfilling of rights is so common that it has become a trend. And in recent years, these protests have seen police reacting using excessive force and gunning down innocent civilians.
A climate for police brutality
In this kind of climate, with Mido Macia, Andries Tatane and the 34 striking miners at Marikana now in their graves due to a complete disregard for human life by an unchecked trigger-happy police force, it is necessary to take a measured approach to Human Rights Day. Yes, it is undeniably wonderful that the apartheid regime was dismantled and consequently under the democratic ‘rainbow nation’ we all supposedly share basic human rights and this should be celebrated – but let us not forget the underbelly of our current times, let the dead bodies not keep piling up in vain.
Zuma has been pressured by the National Assembly to address exponentially rising police brutality in some kind of decisive and meaningful way. He said dismissively, though, “it does not for now require a commission to investigate that.” Zuma is clearly living with his head in the sand or, perhaps he doesn’t read newspapers because the phrase ‘shot by police’ has become an all too familiar headline. The refrain was not unique to the apartheid years.
Celebrating Human Rights Day in South Africa should make us ponder George Hegel’s wise words: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” I would hope, as naïve as I am, that we would prove Hegel wrong and in commemorating a ‘sad day’, put our all our efforts into avoiding creating new ‘sad days’.