Human Rights Celebration in Sharperville, South Africa

Overview of the Human Rights day celebration

IN MANY ways, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe is lionised by the events of March 21, 1960 in Sharpeville in which 69 people were massacred and nearly 300 seriously injured by the bullets of the cruel apartheid regime.

Importantly, the statue on which the countrys Constitution was inscribed in 1996 in Sharpeville, bears witness to what the man stood for, which was social and political justice and human rights not only for South Africans, but for all of Africa. Because of these events, we have the man, who in a manner of speaking, conquered death, and lives among the hearts of many in all parts of the world, especially in the African continent, even as he had been physically absent and dissolved by death from the land of the living nearly 40 years ago. In his own words, Sobukwe envisioned the US of Africa that would encompass all parts of Africa. And with pride he could say: We regard it as a sacred duty of an African state to strive ceaselessly and energetically for the creation of a US of Africa, stretching from Cape to Cairo, Morocco to Madagascar.

The days of small, independent countries are gone. As the country celebrates the 21 years since the Constitution was signed into law by then president Nelson Mandela on December 18, 1996 and 57 years of the pass laws protest marches of March 21, 1960, the day should also mark the political stature of Sobukwe. It is a great pity that for reasons of political hegemony his name has often been played down and not given the recognition it rightly deserves. This need not be the case because to do that is to be in denial of the events that happened and were orchestrated by the great man. Rather, this country owes Sobukwe a great debt a memorialisation of a great political icon not only by the erection of statues but more by reliving his ideal of inaugurating a united country and united continent incorrectly dubbed the Dark Continent by cynical foreign politicians and commentators. But also, it is impossible to deny the events of history.

We have to hate apartheid with a passion, but we cannot, simply by pulling down statues of evil men, believe that apartheid never existed, for it did. We cannot wish away Sobukwes contribution even as some have disagreed with his political philosophical thrust and ideology. The honour the country can bestow on him is to recognise his immense contribution to the political space in a difficult period in which blacks endured political hardships and marginalisation from the apartheid regime. Can we expunge the events of Sharpeville, even if we removed from our calendar the name Sharpeville Day, which is a reminder to the community of that black township that once upon a time the illegitimate apartheid rule used gun power to annihilate those who were dear to them, depriving them of something as sacred as life? For many in Sharpeville and other parts of the country the day to which we have rightly ascribed as a Human Rights Day continues to be referred to as Sharpeville Day. On this day, 57 years ago, Sharpeville and its people suffered humiliation and death. That cannot be obliterated from their memory.

This is not by any stretch of the imagination to suggest that Human Rights Day is a misnomer, for it is not, for if anything, it is appropriately named as such to remind the country of the importance of human rights and the Bill of Rights enshrined in the Constitution. Through Human Rights Day the country is reminded that human dignity should be accorded to all without exception. Human Rights Day should remind South Africans that there must never be a time when we deviate from the offerings of the Constitution and the human rights culture enshrined in the Bill of Rights. South Africa dare not go back to the dark and unsavoury history in which blacks were discriminated against on the basis of colour. Nor should the country discriminate against any human being.

As the country celebrates Human Rights Day on Monday, there must also be the realisation that Sobukwe made an immense contribution in the struggle to oppose all forms of oppression, dehumanisation and injustice. As a lawyer in Kimberley, Sobukwe spent his last years of life defending the downtrodden and striving to restore dignity to the little man and woman who seemed not to matter much in the eyes of those who wielded apartheids political power. The world needs to know that there once lived a political giant and icon by the name of Sobukwe, a man who risked his career as an academic at the University of Witwatersrand for the sake of others, especially the downtrodden and marginalised for the sake of restoring their dignity. The act of burning the dompas (a pass book) as a protest against pass laws orchestrated through a protest march to Orlando police station 57 years ago was an act of crying out to the world for equality, justice and human dignity. It was an act of crying out that the country needed a new political dispensation in which all would enjoy life as it should be enjoyed without one race oppressing another a cry for equal opportunities for all South Africa and more so for the disenfranchised African people.

To further articulate his view, Sobukwe wrote: We wish to emphasise that the freedom of the African means the freedom of all in South Africa, the Europeans included, because only the Africans can guarantee a genuine democracy in which all men will be citizens of a common state and will live and be governed as individuals and not distinctive sectional groups. That is the man, as we celebrate Human Rights on Tuesday, to remember, honour and even hang our collective heads in shame that, in the main, we failed to allow him to take his rightful place as a great South African who made an immense contribution to the political life and discourse in this country.

Sobukwe is the man who said: We stand for an African socialist democracy. Here is a tree rooted in an African soil, nourished with the waters from the waters from the rivers of Africa. Come and sit under its shade and become, with us, the leaves of the same branch and the branches of the same tree. It must be a great tribute to Sobukwe today that the Constitutional Court stands at the precinct of the Constitution Hill under the tree, and rooted in the tradition of social justice, and enjoying the shade of human rights from which all South Africans enjoy the fruits of his political wisdom.