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Human Rights Day – Remembering the victims of apartheid
March 21 is Human Rights Day in South Africa. It commemorates the victims of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 during which the police of the apartheid regime shot 69 protestors.
Around the world, Human Rights Day is celebrated on December 10. In South Africa, however, it is March 21 – with good reason: On this day, 53 years ago, several thousand demonstrators gathered in front of the police station of Sharpeville in what is today the South African province of Gauteng. They had come to protest against the discriminatory pass laws of the apartheid regime. These laws had introduced a separation of residential and business areas for whites, blacks and Indians. As a consequence, several million people had been forced to move against their will because they were residing in areas foreseen for whites. However, these citizens’ workforce was vital for the South African economy, so they were allowed to enter those areas under conditions specified by the pass laws, which were designed to keep the presence of the black populace in the cities to a minimum. Anyone not able to present his or her pass book upon request had to face punishment. In order to protest these laws, many people appeared at the demonstration without their passes and demanded to be arrested.
The nonviolent protest ended when the police began to shoot at the demonstrators. 69 persons were killed, approximately 180 injured. This massacre resulted in the increasing international isolation of South Africa. Within the country it led to the banning of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), which had emerged from the former. Both were organisations of black citizens of South Africa that were now forced to go underground. As a result, they abandoned their strategies of passive resistance and turned to armed resistance against the apartheid regime.
In 1966, the United Nations declared March 21 “International Day Against Racism.” 30 years later, in 1996, Nelson Mandela chose Sharpeville as the site for the signing into law of the new democratic Constitution of South Africa.