Sharpeville was horrific. Let’s not shroud it in euphemism
We should reflect on our history as it really happened, and take heed of its warnings about the future
At first glance, it looked like columnist gold: Cyril Ramaphosa stuck on a train for hours, the embodiment of a country going nowhere because thieves have stolen everything that works and nobody knows how to fix the stuff they decided wasn’t worth taking.
But I didn’t write that column, because I’ve written it 50 times already.
Now and then I changed the metaphor. The ANC is a crashing plane! The ANC is the Titanic! The ANC is the Mafia! Ramaphosa is Zuma’s bondage gimp! Ramaphosa is an FBI double agent who’s infiltrated the Mafia!
You will be startled to read, given the erudition of those metaphors and the force of my denunciations, that the ANC is still in power and will win the election in May quite comfortably. I can’t imagine why this is the case – some of those columns were properly eviscerating – but I must consider the faint possibility that writing opinion pieces about governments does not cause them to crumble.
Which is why, as I start to wonder whether writing about the ANC is like taking a dictionary to a knife fight, I will turn my attention to something much, much more modest and humdrum: Human Rights Day.
I know. I’m sorry. It’s not an exciting topic. Compared with Ramaphosa trapped in that carriage – or, as they would call it in Hollywood, Fakes on a Train – Thursday’s holiday seems entirely tedious: an abstract, pious ritual that sits somewhere between paying respects to a relative you didn’t know and a high school assembly devotion.
Not everyone, however, objects to it on those grounds. For some people, it is a frustrating denial of our current crisis. Why, they ask, should we engage with a day dedicated to something that happened almost 60 years ago when we teeter on the edge of the precipice right now? Why bring the country to standstill to remember people killed in Sharpeville by a political system long gone, when the people in power right now are making such a spectacular mess?
For others, Human Rights Day feels like a betrayal.
When the ANC came into power, many amateur readers of history braced themselves for a wave of revisionist history, imposed on us by leaders who had been educated in the communist bloc and who, it was logical to suppose, would bring with them the Soviet Union’s penchant for rewriting history to suit its politics.
That wave never arrived, mainly because the ANC was never really a Marxist or communist movement: it was, as it is now, a nationalist one, drifting toward ethnic nationalism, and fundamentally, orgiastically capitalist. Soviet-style slogans won hearts, minds and votes, but the ANC never, ever practised what it preached. The revisions, where they happened, where minor: Thabo Mbeki’s face has been allowed to remain in official histories of the glorious movement.
March 21 – Sharpeville Day – was the one clear exception. A march organised by PAC leaders, carried out by PAC supporters, during which mostly PAC supporters were murdered by apartheid police, has been annexed and overwritten by the ANC; claimed as a pivotal moment in the broader liberation struggle. The ANC has expropriated Sharpeville without political or historical compensation. For many former PAC or non-aligned revolutionaries, calling Sharpeville Day “Human Rights Day” – a name imposed on it by the ANC – i to be complicit in a shabby lie.
For me, however, the name is problematic because it is so entirely, sinisterly bland.
That blandness was, of course, by design. Sharpeville Day was a hard, bloody name that made hard, bloody distinctions between victims and perpetrators; between black and white. It demanded justice. It was, in other words, anathema to the project of the Rainbow Nation, where unity was prized over redress and the future was privileged over the past. “Human Rights Day” was a compromise, offering both a euphemistic nod to past horrors and an affirmation that such horrors should not be repeated.
The trouble with euphemisms and general affirmations, however, is that they make us forget the bloody specifics of their origins. And in this case, they murmur to us that the state is benevolent or at least benign. After all, it’s given us a whole day off to reflect on being better people.
States, however, are not benign. When they have to choose between human rights and their own authority, their choice is clear. The SA government proved that at Sharpeville in 1960, and again at Marikana in 2012.
On Thursday, let us reflect on our history as it really happened, and celebrate the undeniable advances we’ve made since 1960 and 1994.
But perhaps it’s also worth asking, just for minute: is Human Rights Day a holiday, or is it the state, whispering through its smile, softly reminding us of what happens when hard choices have to be made?