Isaac Mangena
Isaac Mangena

Sharpeville: Shame on you, ANC

Moving the commemoration of the Sharpeville massacre from its historic base is nothing more than an insult to those who laid down their lives.

For the past 21 years, Sharpeville Day, as the day was known, was celebrated in Sharpeville, the place where 69 people lost their lives fighting for the freedoms and liberties we enjoy today.

Their lives changed that Monday morning of March 21 1960 when the South African police opened fire on those on the streets of Sharpeville who were protesting against the carrying of passes.

Since the ANC came to power in 1994, the day has been commemorated across the country as Human Rights Day. It has always been tradition that the main event be held at Phelindaba cemetery, where the bodies of the 69 are buried and where the Sharpeville memorial garden was erected. This is also where, normally, the president and other senior government officials grace the main celebrations of the day and address the crowds.

But for this year’s commemoration, the ANC government decided to break away from tradition and took the event to Kliptown in Soweto.

As we know, this sparked unnecessary riots in Sharpeville by locals who felt hard-done by the ANC government, and rightfully so. One person was shot. Residents say they were never told about this change, and knowing the ANC government and how the e-tolls were imposed on the poor, I believe them. They lament the fact that it’s their ancestors, their brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers, who died in Sharpeville.

For the past 21 years the event has been a source of income for Sharpeville locals in many different ways and a ritual for those whose families paid dearly on that fateful day.

Should we be surprised by the actions of Jacob Zuma’s government? Not at all.

The ANC has for many years wanted to steal this event from those who led it 52 years ago.

Back then, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), which had broken away from the ANC in the late 1950s, decided to lead the protest against the pass laws – the lynchpin of the apartheid system. Its leader Robert Sobukwe called for the protests at a press conference on March 18 1960. The PAC launched the first phase of its programme for the liberation of South Africa on Monday March 21 1960. “The door to door campaign was reinforced with a call on all pass-carrying African men to leave their passes at home, march to police stations nearest to them and demand to be arrested for refusing to carry a pass,” explained journalist David Sibeko in the Sunday Nation in 1976, from exile in Nairobi.

But, as expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema ranted during the time of the 2010 celebrations when he accused the PAC of stealing the moment from the ANC, the current ruling party had planned similar resistance against the pass laws on March 31, mobilising support through door-to-door campaigns among other efforts. The ANC claimed the PAC decided to outshine them by organising its own mass protest march ten days earlier – on March 21.

“The Sharpeville massacre must be properly located in the struggle as led by the ANC, of course admitting to the bloody opportunism that the PAC is. Consequently, the ANC owes the PAC no political elevation,” Malema wrote.

This leads me to believe that the ANC has always wanted to claim “ownership” of the events of March 21 1960, and one can conclude that they have won that battle. With the PAC being almost non-existent, the ANC acted like a thief in the night, stealing the celebration away from Sharpeville and handing it to its favoured historical commemorations venue, Soweto. It was easy to do that. In fact, in comparison with June 16/Youth Day, the ANC managed to dull the significance/relevance of the Sharpeville massacre a long time ago by ensuring that it is under-marketed.

One cannot expect the ANC to fund a celebration that is clearly not its own. To do so would be like asking Zuma’s government to fund the commemoration of the Voortekker Beweging’s Geloftedag or Day of the Vow. Even the erection of the Sharpeville memorial site was done after many years of lobbying by the families of those who died.

One is tempted to then ask: is Human Rights Day an ANC event? I don’t think so. The event is supposed to be a national event celebrated by all South Africans. But most importantly, just like the Battle of Isandlwana and other heroic dates we celebrate, it should be used a remembrance for those who died, where they died.

Imagine moving the main celebrations of the Battle of Isandlwana, which happened in Zululand, and commemorating it in Maphungubje, Limpopo. And why is everything about liberation supposed to be in Soweto?

By moving this commemoration from Sharpeville, the ANC has insulted not only those who died on March 21 1960, but many others who laid down their lives in the fight against apartheid.

But my colleague Lloyd Coutts was right when he remarked, “The first rule of history is that it’s made by the victor. The ANC can make all the rules it wants.”

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