It was a day that altered many lives, not the least those who lost loved ones or had to care for the maimed. It led directly to the liberation movement embracing armed struggle. If any event illuminated apartheid as a crime against humanity – the Sharpeville massacre brought that home with shock force. It could not be denied then nor today. The world was shocked too and condemnation was universal. International solidarity and the isolation of apartheid South Africa became one of the key elements contributing to its demise. People abroad, by linking hands with South Africa’s oppressed, provided inspiration and decisive support.
On that fatal day, 60 years ago, on 21 March 1960, I was working at a Johannesburg film studio near Alexandra township. A fellow scriptwriter, arriving around lunchtime, alerted our writing team to tune in to a broadcast she had picked up on her car radio. She had heard the news-breaking account of police shooting African protesters at Sharpeville, a township near Vereeniging we had never heard of before.
The alarming news came in thick and fast and we tuned to the BBC to get a better sense of it all, as an alternative to the stream of propaganda from the SABC aiming to deflect blame from the authorities. Protesters, or in many cases curious onlookers, died in a hail of bullets outside the police station where a crowd had gathered to witness a handful of PAC members declaring that they would no longer carry their reference books – the notorious dompas. This hated identity document was compulsory for black Africans to have on their person, governing their movements and their right to reside and work in white areas, on pain of arrest and imprisonment. It was an essential part of the way the apartheid system controlled black lives. The SABC slavishly reinforced the police account: the crowd was dangerous and threatening their lives; conspiracy and treason to overthrow the state was behind it all. The police had no recourse but to defend themselves against the swart gevaar – and uphold South Africa’s way of life.
More independent accounts pointed to a majority of casualties – men, women, and 29 children – having been shot in the back as they fled for their lives. African people on the receiving end in their daily lives recognised all too well the ever-present mood of trigger-happy cops and the brutish hand of white supremacy. Even whites who had a conscience readily understood the motivation for the shooting spree, although nothing on such a scale had been seen before. I was fortunate, owing to my more liberal upbringing, and rebellious nature, that I fell in that more caring category.
At work, I joined the sullen group of African labourers during the lunch break to commiserate. I had forged good relations with them in my year at the film studio. The white workers – artisans who built the film sets, electricians and carpenters – were similarly grouped. Whatever side you were on, everyone was gripped by the shock force of the news. The whites put on the mask of racist bravado, jeering at me, a traitor in their midst. “Moenie worry, boet, we’ll see you in the trenches. Ons wit ous have to sink or swim together. You have no choice.”
I felt depressed to the core but insisted I had a choice. I refused to be forced into a racial pigeonhole and seek protection within the white laager. Since leaving school a couple of years previously I had made friends across the colour line, at mixed-race parties, poetry readings and private jazz events. I had felt I had freed myself and was living an independent life of my choice without oppressing anyone. There were examples of other whites, no matter that they were a tiny minority, people of principle and conscience – liberals, Christians and communists – brave enough to speak out and act.
I argued with relatives and friends, some of whom reflected the going mood of the white community: the k*****s should be mown down with machine guns. Made to know their place. What frustrated me even more were some of my friends, artists and musicians across the colour line, shrugging their shoulders, as though nothing could be done. Some simply seemed to drink and cavort more intensely, as though the inevitable end of the world was nigh.
My rage was incandescent. As much with myself as an idle onlooker as with others. My belief that I could separate from the prevailing system as a free individual by ignoring race laws and white custom came crashing down to earth.
I might be on the enlightened side of the fence but what of the hapless victims? What could be done? When I cooled down somewhat, I resolved not to wring my hands in grief but to seek those who were the government’s most active opponents – the ANC of Luthuli and Mandela and the more shadowy Communist Party. In fact, the less organised PAC had pre-empted a pass burning campaign the ANC had been planning for months. Photographs of Chief Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela and others burning their pass books as a State of Emergency was declared were in the press and they soon joined PAC leader Robert Sobukwe in detention.
If I could trace and make contact with the revolutionaries, I might find an active role to play. The problem was where to begin? A mass roundup of both ANC and PAC members was reported along with leading communists. Those who had evaded arrest had gone to ground or, like Oliver Tambo and Yusuf Dadoo, had skipped the country to mobilise from abroad. Anyway, where could a white boy aged 21 find members of the liberation movement at the best of times?
I was fortunate. I had a relative in Durban who was a communist and had been one of the 156 accused in the Treason Trial. That contact was my good fortune and promptly facilitated my entry into the ranks of the ANC-led liberation movement. There are those who believe the likes of Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Helen Joseph, Reverend Trevor Huddleston were aberrations of history. That’s incorrect. The basis of such conversion to the side of justice is whether one can be true to human values and – yes – the good luck at a time of crisis and moral challenge to make the necessary contact with those “in the know”, so to speak. Such enablers provided for me the choice to act and not turn one’s back. There’s no aberration in that choice.
The lesson of the Sharpeville massacre, and the decades of colonial and apartheid repression in our country, and global injustice, is the fight for Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for every human being of whatever colour, creed, nationality or ethnic group, women and men, young and old.
These are the principles and values that affect us all. Living apart, social distancing, failing to extend a helping hand, avoiding involvement, are anathema to the human condition. At a time of enforced isolation, however, such as by the corona pandemic, an Italian footballer, Gianluigi Donnarumma, has stated: “In this moment of great difficulty we stand together, even if we are apart.” This applies to solidarity in all forms; one which comes to mind is the solidarity with political prisoners and how this applied when Mandela, Sobukwe and so many others were restricted, detained in isolation, imprisoned, cut off from loved ones and society.
The end of apartheid in 1994 has meant we all have freedom to enjoy a more fulfilling life. Despite liberty, however, extreme levels of inequality leave multitudes marginalised and humanity in a critical state. The grievous ills from socio-economic crisis, gender and child abuse to disease, plagues, famine, war, coups, regime change, terrorism, corruption and ravages of global warming strike us all – but particularly the most vulnerable. The 1% who own more than half the wealth of what goes to the rest of humanity grow richer while the poor grow poorer. The essence of fraternity is people-centred solidarity. If there is a path in overcoming problems confronting us it is through human solidarity. We either sink or swim together. If survival is to be the outcome, we need to find the most creative, inclusive and united ways to pull the world back from the cliff edge.
What is unhelpful is denying the fundamental causes of the problem and remaining in a state of denial. By way of example: denying that apartheid was a crime against humanity or claiming that the interests of corporate capitalism is good for humanity; or that Covid-19 has nothing to do with climate change. To arrive at a strategy for survival, recovery and surmounting obstacles in all respects, is to place the interests of the people to the fore, to protect and safeguard all of humanity especially the most vulnerable. Nobody is an island unto themselves and even where isolation is forced upon us – by aggression, imprisonment or illness – we must stand together. That is how we may overcome. The lessons of Sharpeville and of beating the coronavirus makes that imperative. We beat apartheid through human solidarity, mobilisation, organisation and unity. Even those in isolation and imprisonment played their part.
The measures in which governments strive to cope with pandemics illustrates their seriousness and thus their concern for their people. Countries like China and Italy, and now France, have led the way in their methods of containing the pandemic where decisive and serious measures are required, including in the latter instance financial amelioration to its most vulnerable people and small businesses. South Africa’s measures, recently announced, show seriousness but judgement awaits implementation. The better-off may be able to wash their hands regularly and stock up on food, but what of the bulk of our people who have poor access to clean water and scant resources to fall back on? They need extra special assistance.
States that fail to unite and assist their people, as in a wartime effort, will flounder and fail. The US is the worst such case with dithering Boris Johnson not far behind in Britain’s half-baked response. Not only does Trump’s America fail its people, particularly its poor and marginalised, it deliberately magnifies the suffering of countries under sanctions from Iran to Venezuela where medicines as a result are in short supply. Cuba would suffer the cruel consequence of US sanctions if it did not have such an outstanding health system. In an outstanding act of solidarity, it allows a cruise ship with coronavirus-stricken passengers to dock because “their lives are at risk”. Israel by contrast only delivers its coronavirus advice in Hebrew, ignoring the Arab mother tongue of 20% of Palestinians living within the Zionist state. The consequences of its siege of Gaza and military occupation of the West Bank where medical supplies are deliberately kept in short supply are frightening.
As we talk of solidarity on this 60th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre and celebrate our Human Rights Day on 21 March, we hold Israel Apartheid Week activities. At this difficult time, we will do so through various online activities, to assure the Palestinian people that they are not alone and to hold hands with them. They stood by us during the struggle against apartheid. We stand by them in their struggle against apartheid Israel.
Solidarity is a two-way street. Israel, as the occupying power, must be held to account for its massacre of Palestinian people, and any failure to protect those falling under its ruling diktat against the current pandemic. Its callousness and flagrant abuse of international humanitarian law is like apartheid South Africa, a crime against humanity. That is why the BDS Movement (Boycott, Sanctions and Disinvestment) against apartheid Israel is a measure of our solidarity and humanity. DM
"We are surrounded by story." ~ Alice McDermott