Remembering Sharpeville, 54 years on

Thursday, March 20, 2014

By Bathandwa Mbola

Fifty four years ago, it took an act of armed resistance to prompt worldwide condemnation of the apartheid system. Bathandwa Mbola recently took a trip to the historic township, to hear the tale of a Sharpeville survivor, who dared to stand up against an oppressive regime.  

At first glance, Sharpeville is no different from thousands of other townships in South Africa. But the name has become significant in the country’s history.

Situated about 70 kilometres from the country’s economic heartland, Johannesburg, indigenous Africans were forcibly relocated to Sharpeville from a nearby town by the ruling white government of the day.

By 1960, the township had only two tarred roads and no street lighting. It was also the year that police mowed down 69 unarmed people and injured 180 others who refused to carry the hated ‘dompas’ identity document that was meant only for Africans.
Failure to produce the pass or not having the right stamp on it, meant immediate arrest and jail time for Africans. And on 21 March 1960, many paid the ultimate price in the tragedy that would become historically known as the Sharpeville Massacre.

In a year the country celebrates 20 years of freedom and democracy, many will again gather this Friday on Human Rights day, to remember the fallen heroes and heroines of South Africa’s struggle. 

As I discovered during my visit to Sharpeville, the number of survivors who can remember the 1960 massacre is dwindling in the township. But for those who can still remember, memories of that eventful day still run deep. Images of friends and family members being gunned down in front of them,   as they watched, are pictures that will haunt the survivors as long as they live.

Ike Molete Makiti is one of the few survivors of the massacre who have chosen to stay in Sharpville all these years. He is a former student activist and a Robben Island political prisoner.

Now 71 years old, Makiti remembers the events of the day as if they happened yesterday.

Emerging from his modest face-bricked home, situated on the eroded dusty Mofolo Street, the bespectacled Makiti gets straight to the point of the story he has told many times since March 21 1960. But, the fact that it still makes him weep, I tell myself, is an indication of the trauma that had characterised the massacre.

Only a teenager at the time, he cannot forget the corpses of men, women and children strewn at the scene – as if they did not matter.  Their lives made irrelevant by the wretched apartheid system – human lives that did not count.  Or the mass coffins that lay ready for burial following that fatal day.

Makiti recalls the scene before the massacre as peaceful.

“There was jubilation among the masses. Nothing suggested people were angry or wanted to fight because some where holding umbrellas and throwing their hats in the air. We were just chanting freedom songs and calling out the campaign slogans "Izwe lethu" (Our land); "Awaphele amapasti" (Down with passes),” Makiti recalls.

“We were told that we would get our answer at 1 pm,” he says. He then left his protesting friends to have lunch at home. But on his return, he could not believe what he was seeing. What was earlier a peaceful march had suddenly turned into a battlefield and the singing of freedom songs was replaced by screams or terror, gunshots and the wailing of ambulance sirens.

“All I could hear was ra pa pa pa pa pa- shots were being fired- people were screaming, falling and others running. There was blood everywhere…it was just chaos….people where helpless. We never anticipated that the answer at 1 pm would come in the form of bullets.”

The shooting lasted about 15 minutes. But by the end of it, 69 lives had been lost and 180 more people injured.  As history tells us, the incident, inadvertently provided a catalyst for decades of armed struggle and forced the rest of the world to confront the injustice of the apartheid regime.

As the dead bodies lay scattered in front of the old police station in Sharpeville, Makiti says something else happened.

“It rained so heavily, washing away the people’s blood - some of whom where my friends. The whole township smelled of human blood.”

For him, the events of that day signalled a new beginning, not only for the community of Sharpville, but for South Africa as a whole.

“We knew right then that South Africa will never be the same again. That day changed me and I told myself that I must continue to fight for the freedom of our people.”

Makiti was arrested in 1963 for illegal political activity and was jailed on Robben Island for five years.

His accounts of events of 21 March are supported by a permanent exhibition in the memorial precinct which includes a park where the people were slain off the busy Seiso Road.

There  is a dramatic display of black and white photographs of the massacre and its aftermath which drape the wide walls: from men fleeing from police in bicycles, bodies being carried to safety and a lone picture of a smiling Pan African Congress leader Robert Sobukwe. The centre is a hive of activity with people cleaning, while others mow the lawn ahead of  Friday’s commemorative event.

The old police station- opposite the precinct has been turned into a community centre and a clinic.  The cemetery, which is filled with rows of mismatched tombstones, covered with unkempt grass and faded artificial flowers, marks the resting place of the massacre’s victims.

Makiti says he will continue to tell the story of that day to future generations for as long as he is alive.

“Because I want them to take the lesson that we have come far as a country. I want the new generation to appreciate the freedom they enjoy today because it didn’t come easy- blood was shed- not only in Shapeville, but the country as a whole. What they need to do now is get educated and take this country forward.”

Pride lights up to many of the faces of the “born frees “of Shapville when they talk about the 21 March 1960.

Though walking around the township, I can see that political freedom does not necessarily mean equal economic freedom. Many, mostly youth, roam the streets with no employment.

Although many acknowledged that the country has come far since 1994, some still feel development is still very slow in the area.

“Though the day has become just another excuse for having fun with friends and family for the rest of the country, for us here it is more than that.

“It is about our ancestors who fought for the freedom that we enjoy today. Our democracy is the envy of many nations and nationalities and for me is worth celebrating,” says youngster Thabang Sibeko.

This Friday, on Human Rights day, Makiti and some of the survivors of the Sharpeville massacre will join President Jacob Zuma and millions of South Africans to remember the 69 lives claimed on that day.  The theme for the commemoration is “Celebrating 20 Years of changing lives through human rights”.

The beaming old man says he would be happy if all South Africans can pause for a moment on Friday and reflect on how far we have come as a country.

 “If we can foster a spirit of understanding, a spirit of diligence and a spirit that says we can agree to disagree - because a society that demands rights without a message of its commensurate responsibilities is a society on the brink of a major fall.” -



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