Opinion

Remembering Sharpeville

Summary

Suddenly, the journalists shot off, telling us people were dying in Sharpeville. These were the days before cell phones, so the horror of what had happened hit us only the next day in the cells when we saw the front pages of the newspapers. What Sobukwe feared would happen, had in fact happened.

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Izwe lethu! MaAfrika, I was 17 years old on this very day 61 years ago when I went to jail for the first time. We who went to jail were the “lucky” ones on a day when 69 people were shot dead and 180 others, like Mme MaMnguni, were wounded. On that day and in that month, hundreds of children lost their parents.

Mme MaMnguni, ke a go tlotla. Balapa la kwa Nkosi, ke a le tlotla. Ke tlotla malapa a latlhegetsweng ke baratiwa ba bone ka letsatsi leo, le malatsi a pele ga leo le morago ga lona. Ke bile ke tlotla lapa la Afrika, lele tlhorontsitsweng dingwaga le dingwaga, refetotswe malata mo lefatsheng labommarona leborrarona.

MaAfrika, allow me to start my talk by mentioning that Sobukwe understood the full implications of the Anti-Pass Campaign. At the Conference of the PAC, at the Orlando Communal Hall on December 19 and 20, 1959, the NEC was given a mandate to devise and plan for the campaign. After that resolution, the women in the hall swaggered up the aisle, taunting us men: “If you are scared of the Boers, give us those trousers, and we’ll show you what should be done.” Among those women, I remember MmaMolapo and MmaWalaza, swaying their hips in the dance. I looked to the stage and saw Sobukwe wipe tears from his eyes – the first of the two times I ever saw Prof weeping.

When he stood up, he chopped his one hand into his other palm and simply said: “Ndizakunibiza, Madoda!” (I am calling on men!)

And then five days before the massacre at Sharpeville, on March 16, 1960. Sobukwe wrote a prophetic letter to the Commissioner of Police, Major-General Rademeyer:

“Sir,

“My organisation, the Pan Africanist Congress, will be starting a sustained, disciplined, non-violent campaign against the Pass Laws on Monday the 21st March 1960. I have given strict instructions, not only to members of my organisation but also to the African people in general, that they should not allow themselves to be provoked into violent action by anyone. In a Press Statement I am releasing soon, I repeat that appeal and make one to the Police too.

“I am now writing to you to ask you to instruct the Police to refrain from actions that may lead to violence. It is unfortunately true that many white policemen, brought up in the racist hothouse of South Africa, regard themselves as champions of white supremacy and not as law officers. In the African they see an enemy, a threat, not to “law and order” but to their privilege as whites.

“I, therefore, appeal to you to instruct your men not to give impossible commands to my people. The usual mumbling by a police officer of an order requiring the people to disperse within three minutes, and almost immediately ordering a baton charge, deceives nobody and shows the police up as sadistic bullies. I sincerely hope that such actions will not occur this time. If the police are interested in maintaining “law and order”, they will have no difficulty at all. We will surrender ourselves to the police for arrest…”

At 03:00 on the morning of March 21, 1960, my comrades and I were in the streets of Orlando East, confronting all men we met: Are you sneaking to work or are you on your way to the police station? Eh, no, I’m on my way to the police station.

We gathered several groups that morning, but then the police in their strange Saracen armoured vehicles – that they deployed in the townships for the first time that week – would drive into us and we’d scatter in all directions. By the time we got to the police station, we were a sizeable group that waited for Sobukwe, and the people from other townships. The wait gave those who had joined us reluctantly and the scared to sneak away. The Sobukwe group from Mofolo, Dube, and Orlando West arrived and Sobukwe led us into the police station.

The police refused to arrest us and we resolved to wait outside the charge office until they arrested us.

At about 10:00 a convoy of security branch police drove into the police station and some SB came out with a list of names: Wie is Sobukwe? Leballo, Mothuping? The names of the top leadership of the PAC. They were taken away, and we learnt later, to the Security Police headquarters in Von Wielligh Street in the city.

Suddenly, the journalists shot off, telling us people were dying in Sharpeville. These were the days before cell phones, so the horror of what had happened hit us only the next day in the cells when we saw the front pages of the newspapers. What Sobukwe feared would happen, had in fact happened.

We sat and sang. We would not leave. Women from the neighbourhood brought us sandwiches and tea…

It was late afternoon when they started booking us. And so my life as a “criminal” started.

That night I saw bedbugs for the first time as they rained from the cracks between the sheets of corrugated iron ceiling of the cell and they squeezed through the corrugated walls. We tried to burn them with fires we made with newspapers….We spent the night on our feet, singing the songs of Afrika. “We shall serve, suffer, and sacrifice for our freedom.”

In the end 142 of us were sentenced to £300 or three years in jail – half of the sentence suspended for three years. The system had hit us not with pass law offences as we had anticipated, but with the law that had ended the Defiance Campaign of 1952, the Criminal Procedure Act, which provided for a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment.

On December 10, 1996, President Nelson Mandela wisely chose Sharpeville as the site at which to sign the country’s new Constitution. At last the country, the nation, acknowledged that Sharpeville had changed the history of our nation. In the Constitution we set our national compass:

“We, the people of South Africa,
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.
We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to ¬
• Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
• Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
• Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
• Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.”

This solemn pledge has lost its meaning as we recite it without understanding its true meaning. We don’t feel the meaning. We don’t think through the meaning. We don’t live its meaning. We don’t see the hunger, the suffering, the inequality, the poverty around us – yes, the suffering that is partly a legacy of apartheid, but largely because of the blind greed around us, with a few blacks having ascended to the status of their erstwhile “oppressors” and the vast majority stuck in the graves first dug at the colonisers and oppressors’ orders.

Each moment I breathe in and out, I feel, I think or do something, I am weaving a stitch in the tapestry that we call history. This art is not reserved for the rich, the politicians, the poor – we are this art, this life. We are history unfolding.

I ask myself: “Am I
• Healing the divisions of the past and consolidating the establishment of a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
• Laying the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law; Am I using all the mechanisms allowed me by the law to express my will in the running of my community and my nation?
• Improving the quality of life of all citizens and helping free the potential of each person; am I helping improve the quality of life of those around me and are they helping improve the quality of my life; and am I
• Building a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations?”
This moment to moment focus channels our anger, our frustration and our feelings of overwhelm when we work through our responsibilty to dismantle what we inherited from the National Party and white South Africa and leave a legacy our children can be proud of.

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