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Sharpeville Day – a meditation on human rights

Updated on March 27, 2011

Introduction - the story of the "pass" system

It is the end of another Sharpeville Day – now known in South Africa as Human Rights Day – and my thoughts are full of issues around human rights.

For those who maybe don't know about this day and its significance in South Africa a short history lesson will follow.

To understand Sharpeville and what happened there 49 years ago to the day (21 March 1960), one needs to understand the so-called “pass” system which existed in various forms for more than 200 years in South Africa. Under this system any Black male (until 1959, when the provisions of the so-called “pass laws” were extended to women also) had to carry a “pass” which was like an internal passport. This pass was originally supposed to prevent “vagrants” from “invading” white areas, but by the time of Union in 1910, when the four colonies of the Transvaal, Orange Free State, Natal and the Cape Province were united, these laws were directed more at simply keeping all blacks out of so-called “white areas.”

This purpose was clearly stated by the Transvaal Local Government Commission in 1921: “the native (i.e. Black person) should only be allowed to enter the urban areas, which are essentially the white man's creation, when he is willing to enter and to minister to the needs of the white man and should depart therefrom when he ceases so to minister.” I kid you not – those are the very words of the report!

The 1937 Native Laws Amendment Act ratified this kind of mentality and was designed to ensure that there were no “surplus natives” in the urban areas by restricting the inward flow of Blacks and promoting an outward flow of Blacks back to their supposed “homelands.”

These provisions were further tightened by the Nationalist Party government after the 1948 elections, specifically in the Urban Areas Act of 1952 which restricted the rights of Blacks to be in urban areas and made not carrying the pass a criminal offence. Blacks had to carry the pass with them at all times and the time and efforts of the police were largely devoted to checking that the passes were being carried.

Among Blacks the pass (or as it would later be called, “reference book”) was known as then “dompas” or literally “stupid pass”, though I think the word might also have come from the polices' frequent, shouted question: “Waars jou verdomde pas? (where's your damned pass?)”

There were many stories about the utter stupidity of these laws and their application. My father used to tell of a Black minister of religion in East London who had hung his jacket, with his “dompas” in its pocket, on his garden fence while digging a flower bed just outside the fence. The police arrived and demanded his pass. He told them it was in his jacket and if they would give him a moment he would fetch it. They refused to let him fetch, threw him in their paddy-wagon, took him downtown and booked him for not carrying his pass.

As Black demands for a more equitable place in South African society the pass laws became a focus of resistance, and this trend took on increased momentum after the victory of the Nationalist Party and their policy of apartheid in 1948.

By the end of the 50s pass law infringements had reached levels of hundreds of thousands annually, at great cost in human dignity.

Policemen examine passes
Policemen examine passes

Photos of the massacre

Sharpeville - what happened

In early 1960 the democratic formations of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) began, in alliance with a number of other organisations, a mass campaign against the pass laws. People were encouraged to burn their passes and court arrest. Thousands of passes were burnt and thousands arrested. Tensions in the country began to mount.

From his home in Groutville, kwaZulu-Natal, the president of the ANC Albert Lutuli warned that Black resentment was very high.

Nevertheless the leaders of the campaign insisted on non-violence, and were largely successful in keeping the campaign non-violent.

On the morning of 21 March people in the model township of Sharpeville began gathering outside the police station. By early afternoon the 75 policemen inside the police station felt threatened by the unarmed crowd and fired some 700 rounds into the crowd, killing 69 of them and wounding another almost 200. Most of the dead were shot in the back.

Sharpeville instantly became a symbol of the cruelty, the inhumanness of the apartheid regime. And of the denial of human rights implicit in the pass laws and indeed the whole apparatus of apartheid.

No wonder that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, when he was the first President of the newly democratic South Africa, signed the country's new constitution into law in Sharpeville. Mandela had been one of the leaders who had publicly burned his pass back in 1960.

President Mandela signs into law the constitution of the new democratic South Africa
President Mandela signs into law the constitution of the new democratic South Africa

Ironies and ambiguities of Human Rights

It seems that human rights are fraught with ironies and ambiguities.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), to the drafting of which former South African Prime Minister General Jan Smuts made a great contribution, was adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 10 December 1948, the very year in which the Nationalist Party took power in South Africa.

The Nationalist Party Government never signed the Declaration, which was only signed by South Africa after the democratic elections of 1994.

The preamble to this great document states, inter alia, that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”

Yet in the years since 1948 the world has seen more barbarous acts, more denials of freedom of speech and belief, and these continue to plague us all.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” - Article One of the UDHR.

It seems to me that we only take cognisance of this when there is some massive infringement of these rights – in Rwanda, in Tibet, in China, in El Salvador, in Serbia, in Burma, in so many other places.

Would it not be better for us all to take responsibility for protecting the rights of all – starting from the rights of our family members, our neighbours, our countries?

These rights are what make a human life possible, a life of enjoyment, of peace and fulfillment, as against a life of deprivation, and it will take a firm commitment from each of us to make them come alive and be what they were intended to be – a way of life for all, a charter for every human being, in whatever circumstances they might be.

South Africa was for so long a place where human rights were disregarded and treated with contempt. We are struggling as a nation to overcome that legacy and make human rights real. It's a long and difficult struggle, but is in the end the only struggle worth pursuing.

Copyright Notice

The text on this page, unless otherwise indicated, is by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2009


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    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Great Piece, Great writing and very educational, and you had me pegged. I am an unreconstructed flower child, still a hippie tree huger after all these years. And proud to be. And very happy that you found me, for it helped me find you.

      Peace to you

    • danjutsu profile image


      10 years ago from UK

      Very powerful hub. There is so much people do not know about the struggles for basic human dignity happening all over the wold.

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      10 years ago from Ohio

      I agree that it is a conscious choice for each of us. We must choose to respect the rights and dignity of others.

    • Daryl Davis profile image

      Daryl Davis 

      10 years ago from San Jose, CA

      "Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace." Benito Juarez (March 21, 1806 - July 18, 1872)

      Thank you for a very interesting hub.

    • Andromeda10 profile image


      10 years ago from Chicago

      This is my "What I learned today!" Thank you for this history. What an amazing story.

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image

      Tom rubenoff 

      10 years ago from United States

      An amazing account of an historic time. I learned so much reading this. Thank you.

    • LondonGirl profile image


      10 years ago from London

      fascinating hub - completely new to me, and I'm very glad I read it.

    • Vladimir Uhri profile image

      Vladimir Uhri 

      10 years ago from HubPages, FB

      Tony, I have a question and comment. I understand that South Africa is rich country. Many black people were migrated there from other countries of Africa. In my old country we all had pass under communists control. One cannot travel without registration to other town. I am glad that South Africa became free country from brutal regime. But Russian communists had and still have very great interests about certain metals and gold... and influence... What I do not like is that uprising was connected with communists. Am I right or wrong?

      Thanks for information of your view.

    • Teresa McGurk profile image


      10 years ago from The Other Bangor

      Wow. What a disturbing slice of history. Thanks for this interesting account of inhumanity to man. When will we ever learn from history? Excellent hub.


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