21 March – not just another holiday

In its 2014 Human Rights Watch Report, the Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA) reports that ‘South Africa continues to struggle with the legacy of apartheid and the challenges relating to addressing increasing demands from its citizens for the realisation of economic and social rights as well as respect for fundamental civil and political freedoms.’

Human Rights Day is not just another holiday. Many lives were lost, literally, while fighting inhumane laws and the right to freedom. What makes this day remarkable is that through combined effort, South Africans were able to put pressure on the apartheid government as a voice that could no longer be suppressed.

On 30 March 1960, the government of the day declared a State of emergency and more than 18 000 people were detained amidst demonstrations, protest marches, marches, strikes and riots raging across South Africa. The state of emergency came just a week after the Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1960.

On that day, about 7 000 protesters from Sharpeville gathered around a police station in demonstration against pass laws. At some point, the police opened fire and 69 people were killed, including 8 women and 10 children, and 180 injured, including 31 women and 19 children. Many were shot in the back as they turned to flee.

UNESCO marks 21 March as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in memory of the massacre.

Fast forward to 1998, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported that the police actions on 21 March 1960 constituted “gross human rights violations in that excessive force was unnecessarily used to stop a gathering of unarmed people”.

Human rights are the basic rights everyone has, simply because they are human. This list of human rights is contained in the Bill of Rights, Chapter 2 of the South African Constitution, the highest law in the country.

On 16 August 2012, members of the South African Police Service, opened fire on a group of strikers. 34 people were killed, and at least 78 were wounded.The incident was the single most lethal use of force by South African security forces against civilians since the Sharpeville massacre during the apartheid era.

Reuters described the incident as causing South Africa to question “its post-apartheid soul”.

Greg Marinovich,South African photojournalist, film maker, photo editor, and member of the Bang-Bang Club, examined the scene and found that the majority of victims were shot 300 meters from police lines where the main “charge” took place.He claims that some of the victims “appear to have been shot at close range or crushed by police vehicles.” Some victims were shot in a “koppie” where they were cornered and could have been arrested. Due to local geography they must have been shot at close range. Few bullets were found in the surrounding area, suggesting they did not die in a hail of bullets. Marinovich concludes that “It is becoming clear to this reporter that heavily armed police hunted down and killed the miners in cold blood.”

President Jacob Zuma, who had been attending a regional summit in Mozambique at the time of the  shooting, expressed “shock and dismay” at the violence and called on the unions to work with the government to “arrest the situation before it spirals out of control”. The following, Jacob Zuma travelled to the location of the shootings and ordered a commission of inquiry to be formed, saying: “Today is not an occasion for blame, finger-pointing or recrimination.” Zuma also declared a week of national mourning for the strikers who were killed.

On 21 August 2012, Defense Minister Nosiviwe Noluthando Mapisa-Nqakula became the first South African government official to apologise for the shooting and asked for forgiveness from angry miners who held up plastic packets of bullet casings to her. “We agree, as you see us standing in front of you here, that blood was shed at this place. We agree that it was not something to our liking and, as a representative of the government, I apologise…I am begging, I beg and I apologise, may you find forgiveness in your hearts.”

The Inquiry into the Marikana shooting is still ongoing.

Institutions mandated by the Constitution to protect your rights


SA Human Rights Commission

The Commission can give you information or training on human rights, and can help you if you think that any of your rights, as defined in the Bill of Rights, has been violated.

It also has a specific responsibility to promote and monitor the implemen- tation of Public Access to Information Act (PAIA).

The Commission’s website has a facility for filing human rights complaints online.


Independent Police Investigative Directorate 

If you believe your rights have been violated by a member of the SA Police Service, contact the IPID. You may lodge a complaint online via their website.

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