The Commemoration of Sharpeville: An Extract From a Paper by Ali Hlongwane


The emergence of the post-1994 South Africa is characterised by processes aimed at shaping a 'new South African' consciousness that will give the South African nation an identity for the future. This process has entailed generally, the perpetuation of " images, stereotypes, silences and underlying ideologies" (Mesthrie; 1994; 235) that give the country a distinct identity. In the South African context this identity has to derive strength from the country's diversity. It has to inculcate reconciliation with the country's painful past. Further, it has to be an identity whose source of symbolic pride is affirming the diverse heritage that will ultimately constitute the South African experience. This process is suppose to represent "the beginning of a new era in the public (re) presentation of South African history"(Hamilton; 1994; 184). However, it is not a straight forward process. It has its twists, turns and contradictions that lead to deliberate inclusion and exclusion informed by the dominant perspective of the state. However, the pace in which the South African state is running at to impose symbols of unity has led a number of people to pause and observe that: "Our dream of joint national purpose and cohesion is at times just too unrealistic. Our fate is as one nation, but nations need time to mature"(Star,2000). 

This dream of shaping 'our fate as one nation' is riddled with tensions as will be shown in the discussion of contests on Heroes Day. These tensions will be illustrated by discussing the way in which political rhetoric commemorating Sharpeville Day gives rise to different uses of the past. The question that the article seeks to explore is, what stories do political activists tell about the Sharpeville shootings to either consolidate their power, or to undermine each other? We will discuss this question by looking at the commemorative writings of activists from the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). We will look at how their writings commemorate and recreate memories of the Sharpeville shootings of 21 March 1960.

Counter-Memories of Sharpeville Day

Differing views continue on what Sharpeville should be in South Africa's memory the post 1994 period. True to Nuttal's argument that the "past…is being remade for purposes of reconciliation", the ANC led government declared March 21 a Public Holiday and marked it Human rights Day. This was welcomed by others, who interpreted Human Rights Day to mean, "Sharpeville's pivotal place in our history was firmly acknowledged… when it was chosen as the site for signing the new constitution into law. And to remember the day, 21 March is observed as Human Rights Day" (Pogrund, 1997, 19) However, contrary perspectives also welcomed Human Rights Day. Writing on the 40th anniversary of the shootings in Sharpeville, Thloloe (2000) observes, "Tuesday will be Human Rights Day. On that day, the United Nations will also be marking the International Day for the Elimination of Racism. But for many of us, the day will remain Sharpeville Day, the day on which we commemorate the death of 69 people at the hands of the South African police, a watershed in the history of our liberation struggle". (Muendane, 1999 55) further asserts the same sentiments "in paying tribute to our freedom, we observe Human Rights Day. The choice of March 21st was inappropriate. It shall always remain Sharpeville Day to many freedom fighters. For Thloloe and Muendane, remembering the Sharpeville shootings as Sharpeville Day will ensure that the public does not forget the heroic act it symbolises as well as its historic political role in shaping the direction of South African politics to embracing armed struggle. Sharpeville led to the declaration of the first state of emergency; it led to the banning of the PAC and ANC; it was a gravedigger to the politics of protest and ushered in armed struggle; Sharpeville mobilised the international community to seriously consider sanctions. The argument then is Human Rights Day neutralises the struggle content represented by Sharpeville Day. At the same time Dr Pheko writing in the Sowetan, notes; "It is a shame that the present government has erected no monument for the martyrs of Sharpeville. The history of this country's liberation is written in their blood. Indeed when one day the true history of South Africa is written, the Sharpeville uprising will assume the prominence as an historical watershed" This view is further expressed by Plaatjie, (1998) who notes that "the heroes of Sharpeville are still remembered with a passing tribute and an occasional gathering in Sharpeville. But the neglected spot in which they are buried could be mistaken for any mundane graveyard". Whilst Dr Pheko sees the silence on Sharpeville Day as a grand design by the ANC led government to marginalise the PAC, Plaatjie goes further and find the role of African intellectuals also at fault. He writes: "It is a shame that to date Sharpeville's heroes have not been properly honoured and that their role has not been adequately chronicled by African intellectuals" (Plaatjie, 1998). Counter memories on Sharpeville Day are also around what form should the Commemorations take. The government commemorates Human Rights Day by financing a number of festivals in various parts of the country. This has been interpreted as part of the grand design to debase this historic event. Dr Mogoba, the President of the PAC has expressed his disapproval on the current government methods of marking Sharpeville Day in the following words: " Today some people organise concerts, and some of our stars are bought or coerced into singing to our gullible masses. Who in their right minds commemorates the death of their beloved ones by throwing music concerts" (Mogoba,2000)

Alternative Voices on Sharpeville Day

As alternatives to government sponsored concerts and festivals, counter memories on Sharpeville Day, take on a number of forms. The PAC and AZAPO continue to hold rallies as in the pre- 1994 format. In these political rallies Sharpeville Day becomes Heroes Day. It becomes a source of inspiration for new struggles. It further provides a platform to criticise and mobilise against the policy directions of the ANC government. PAC leaders, have now made it a tradition to publish articles in daily newspapers like the Sowetan and weeklies articulating their perspectives on the historical event. A number of articles, commemoration speeches, poems, songs on the memory and spirit of Sharpeville have been produced over the years. However, these have not been compiled and put together for easy access. A few biographies and autobiographies have been published in the last five years. Dr Motsoko Pheko has published 'The Land is Ours- The Political Legacy Of Mangaliso Sobukwe'; Elias Ntloedibe has published, 'Here is a Tree- A Political Biography of Mangaliso Sobukwe'; Progrund has published, Sobukwe and Apartheid- How Can Man Die Better', A film documentary titled 'Sobukwe- A Tribute to Integrity' has been produced, as well as Phillip Ata Kgosana' autobiography, 'Lest We Forget" among a number of others. These publications are significant monuments in the commemoration of Sharpeville Day. Dr Mangcu writing in The Star ,Friday, September 10 1999 says, "I have found the best example of what we could do to honour (Sharpeville Day and Sobukwe) in what African Americans have done for Du Bois, the founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured Peoples (NAACP)."The amount of intellectual, cultural and historical output and interest in Du Bois is mind blowing. Some of the leading work around Du Bois's legacy is being conducted at Harvard University's prestigious WEB Du Bois Institute.

Concluding Remarks

The commemoration of Sharpeville Day, has become a melting pot that gives rise to questions about the directions of the continuing liberation process in South Africa. The commemoration allow people to vent out their frustrations about the shortcomings of the new dispensation. At the same time the commemoration is the symbol of healing and reconciliation with the painful past. People commemorate Human Rights Day to mark triumph over the dark days of the past, they mark Human Rights Day to resolve that, what South Africans went through should never be repeated again. What is missing in the writings and debates on the memory of Sharpeville Day, are testimonies of the next of kin of the individuals who lost their lives on that fateful day. There are no records or investigations on what the neglected graveside means to them, or what the heated claims and counter claims of ownership by political parties mean to them, as well as their views of what it means to have a personal experience turned into a national event. Further, we have no records of the attitude and responses of foreign visitors, tourists and individuals involved in tourism to the spot where the shootings occurred. What dialogues emerge between them and the neglected spot as well as the graveyard?

Ali Hlongwane, Post-graduate Heritage Studies Student, University of the Witwatersrand, March 2000.

  • Ndlovu, M.S (1998) The Soweto Uprising: Counter Memories of June 1976. Ravan Press
  • Pheko, M. (2000) Focus: 'Lest We Forget Sharpeville', The Sowetan, 20 March.
  • Pogrund,B. (1997) Focus: 'Prisoner 1', Sunday Life, 23 March.
  • Muendane, N.K. (1999) Focus: 'Human Rights? Human Responsibilities', Tribute, March.
  • Thloloe, J. (2000) Focus: 'Lest We Forget', Sunday World, 19 March.
  • Plaatjie, T. (1998)Focus: 'Sharpeville Heroes Neglected', The Sowetan, 
This article was retrieved from  on the 20th of March 2014.

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