South Africa marks 50th anniversary of massacre

In 1960, police officers killed 69 black South Africans who protested the pass books that the apartheid government required them to carry.

March 21, 2010 14:12
3 minute read.
People attend a memorial service in Sharpville, so

south africa memorial apartheid massacare sharpville 311. (photo credit: AP)


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JOHANNESBURG — Family members of victims raised flowers to the sky and placed them on gravestones Sunday to mark the 50th anniversary of the massacre that became a turning point in the anti-apartheid struggle and drew world condemnation.

Mourners sang freedom songs that date back to the struggle against racist white rule. In 1960, police officers killed 69 black South Africans in Sharpeville, where people had gathered to protest the pass books that the apartheid government required them to carry at all times.

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South Africa's Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe laid flowers at the memorial Garden of Remembrance on Sunday, and spent time speaking with survivors and family members of massacre victims.

"We say never, never and never again will a government arrogate itself powers of torture, arbitrary imprisonment of opponents and the killing of demonstrators," Motlanthe told a crowd of 5,000 who had gathered at a stadium. "In the same breath, we state that our democratic government undertakes to never ignore the plight of the poor, those without shelter, those without means to an education and those suffering from abuse and neglect."

Many though wonder when the change they thought they were fighting for a half century ago will come to the township of Sharpeville. Residents in recent weeks have set fire to tires in the streets to protest the lack of basic city services such as electricity and running water.

"Our lives started changing with Nelson Mandela's release, but people are still financially struggling and finance is still in white people's hands," said Abram Mofokeng, who was just 21 when officers opened fire on protesters in 1960, shooting demonstrators including women and children as they ran away. Mofokeng still bears the scar where a bullet entered his back.

The massacre drew world condemnation of the ruthless treatment of South Africa's disenfranchised black majority and led the apartheid government to outlaw the African National Congress party. The country's first all-race elections were not held until 1994, and the ANC has governed South Africa ever since.

Sixteen years after the end of apartheid, many black South Africans feel that they have not benefited from the economic growth that has made many government and ANC officials rich.

President Jacob Zuma, a popular figure among the poor, has promised to speed up delivery of houses, clinics, schools, running water and electricity as well as create jobs. But he also has acknowledged the difficulties of doing so amid the global recession.

Sunday's 50th anniversary of the massacre was largely calm, despite concerns that commemoration activities could be interrupted with demonstrations.

Some gathered in the streets of Sharpeville and sang of their displeasure with the ANC, but no violence had erupted. All the day's events have been characterized by a heavy police presence, more pronounced than previous anniversaries.

"People's lives haven't changed. There are so many things we don't have ... a community hall, a sports ground ... People are unhappy," said Phillip Makhale, caretaker of the memorial site.

Busisiswe Mbuli, 18, lives with her mother and four siblings in an informal settlement on the edge of Sharpeville.

"There are no school buses in Sharpeville," she said. "We have to walk very far to go to school, and it is difficult for the little ones."

The floor of the family shack she lives in is bare earth and corrugated iron walls reveal large holes where rain and bitter winter winds can come through.

"We cannot live in these shelters. They are right next to the tar road, and the gas heating inside the shelter is not safe. And then there are the toilets. They are the worst," she said.

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