Human Rights Day is a National Holiday in South Africa which is commemorated on March 21 every year. This holiday is to remind South Africans of the sacrifices that accompanied the struggle for the attainment of democracy in South Africa.
In modern times, The Bill of Rights preserved in our constitution ensures that all citizens have the right to human dignity, equality and freedom. This public holiday not only reminds us of the suffering of the past but also how far we’ve come as we celebrate our human rights today. Rights that were not available to all South Africans in times past.
Human Rights Day was born out of the terrible events that happened in 21 March 1960 in Sharpeville.
How did we get to Sharpville
It all started in 1948, when the National Party came into power and formulated policies and laws that allowed discrimination of Black people in Urban Areas. This type of segregation and discrimination is what is usually referred to Apartheid policies.
During Apartheid, people were placed into various racial groupings: White, Indian, Colored and Bantu. This is exactly how people were also treated; Whites received the Best treatment while the Bantu people received the worst treatment.
Furthermore, The Native Laws Amendment Act of 1952 narrowed the definition of Blacks with permanent residence in towns and cities. This means that no Black person over the age of 16 could go to an urban area without a passbook which they had to carry with them everywhere. The idea was to control the movements of Black people around White areas.
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.
From Sharpville to Human Rights Day
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.
Things To Do on Human Rights Day in South Africa
1. Pay a Visit to Sharpeville Memorial
This is located south of Johannesburg. This is the exact location where 69 people were shot and killed and hundreds injured during the Sharpeville protests. There is now a memorial there to remind people of that event and the importance of Human Rights.
This is just one of six heritage sites there. Visiting this place will leave you humbled yet optimistic about South Africa’s future.
2. Visit Vilakazi Street
This township street is located in Soweto, and was once home to Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, two anti-apartheid giants. Hector Pieterson memorial is also nearby, a place that explores the tragedy of years past and also celebrates fallen heroes. Today, this a place where history meets entertainment and cuisine.
3. Pay a Visit to the Apartheid Museum
The Apartheid museum is situated south of Johannesburg—a world-class memorial space providing a deeply moving experience and also fascination. It is loaded with documents, videos and artifacts from the disturbing past events.
This place is a shocking and clear reminder of the tragedy that molded the South Africa of today and how we got to the Human Rights we enjoy these days.
4. Go and see the Statue of Nelson Mandela
This is one of the striking places to visit on Human Rights Day. Just north of Johannesburg, in Tswane looms the commanding statue of Nelson Mandela. This statue serves as a glorious reminder of the path South Africa has walked and the struggles it has endured on its path to Democracy.
5. Spend Time with your Family
Last but not the least, enjoy this public holiday with your Family and friends. Go somewhere nice; a park, a nice open space, get tons of food and have fun. It’s a Holiday so celebrate the fact that you can now enjoy a South Africa that is free and democratic.