Each year on March 21st, South Africa celebrates Human Rights Day to commemorate the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. In honouring the fight for a democratic South Africa, Human Rights Day pays homage to all of those who fought and lost their lives in the struggle for freedom.

The History of Human Rights Day 

Human Rights Day is one of the most important public holidays in South Africa. When South Africa held its first democratic election in 1994, the newly elected president, Nelson Mandela, declared the 21st of March as Human Rights Day. 

The Sharpeville Massacre is a tragedy that marked a turning point for the future of South Africa. Human Rights Day shines a light on the ordinary people who fought for their fundamental rights and bravely opposed the apartheid regime. The 21st of March is a reminder for South Africans to rise in unison to proclaim their human rights continuously.

The ‘Dompas’, Pass Laws and the Sharpeville Massacre

When the Nationalist Party came into power in South Africa in 1948, the government legalised segregation by enforcing a series of laws that gave them control over the movement of people of colour. After implementing the Native Laws Amendment Act of 1952, no black person could leave a rural area for an urban one without a permit or “pass” from local authorities.

The pass included a photograph, details of place of origin, employment record and encounters with the police. Colloquially, the pass book was nicknamed the “dompas” which translates literally to “dumb pass” in Afrikaans.  

Entrance of Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg
Entrance of Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg where enlarged pass books can be seen.

On the 21st March 1960, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) organised a peaceful campaign for women, men and children to gather in Sharpeville without their passes and present themselves for arrest.

Approximately 10 000 people gathered outside of a police station in the Sharpeville township to protest against the pass laws. Despite the protest being non-violent, police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people and injuring an additional 180 victims, the majority of which were shot in the back as they attempted to flee the shooting.

A few days later, a State of Emergency was declared by the Apartheid government, and both the PAC and African National Congress (ANC) were banned. The Sharpeville massacre provoked protest action to spread throughout the country but was met with similar violent suppression. During this time, thousands of ordinary people were arrested and injured by police, but the anti-apartheid movement continued underground.

This tragedy would go down in history as the Sharpeville Massacre. It would late be commemorated annually on the 21st of March as Human Rights Day.


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