Human Rights Day, held each year on March 21, is one of South Africa’s most important holidays.
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Born from the terrible 1960 Sharpeville massacre and the struggle against apartheid, Human Rights Day is both a celebration of the rights of all citizens and a solemn remembrance of the suffering and sacrifice necessary to secure them. Today, the South African Bill of Rights ensures the right to human dignity, equality and freedom for all its citizens.
The Sharpeville Massacre
On March 21, 1960, a large group of South Africans gathered in the township of Sharpeville to protest against the oppressive apartheid government. In particular, the protesters sought to demonstrate against the Pass laws, which required all indigenous Africans over the age of 16 to carry a passbook everywhere they went. This long-standing practice served to severely restrict and control travel, dictating when, where and for how long black South Africans could stay within white areas.
The demonstration began with a festive atmosphere, as thousands of unarmed South Africans gathered in peaceful protest. As the crowd grew ever-larger, however, long-simmering tensions rose to a boil. An initial police presence of fewer than 20 officers soon rose to nearly 150 as reinforcements were rushed in, joined by four armored personnel carriers and armed with various rifles and submachine guns. Scuffles broke out as the crowd, armed only with rocks, surged toward the police station. The police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people and injuring 180 more.
Moving Toward Human Rights
Though it was followed by years of protracted conflict, the Sharpeville massacre was a turning point in the long and difficult battle for human rights in South Africa. In 1986, the Pass laws were ultimately repealed as part of an effort to roll back some of apartheid’s most oppressive laws. The long struggle begun in Sharpeville was finally resolved on April 27, 1994, with the democratic election of President Nelson Mandela. Shortly after his election, Mandela declared March 21 Human Rights Day in remembrance of the event and in celebration of the newly-established freedoms for all South Africans.
In recent years, Human Rights Day has been celebrated in many ways and has come to represent numerous causes. One of the most prominent celebrations is the Cape Town Festival, in which concerts, art displays and performances, youth workshops and other activities are held to promote tolerance and understanding among the many diverse peoples and cultures of Cape Town and South Africa. The government also sponsors parades to commemorate the events at Sharpeville, and prominent politicians offer speeches honoring the massacre’s many victims.
In addition to honoring the victims at Sharpeville, the many Human Rights Day celebrations celebrate the human rights enshrined in South Africa’s constitution. These hard-earned rights include the right to equality before the law, the right to inherent human dignity, the right to freedom of movement and residence, the right to language and culture, the right to peaceful protest and the right to life. In addition, some events are held to draw attention to current human rights concerns, such as racism, human trafficking and police brutality.