By Mzukona Mantshontsho
As we celebrated Human Rights Day in South Africa yesterday Monday 21 March 2022, in commemoration of the Sharpeville Massacre that happened on 21 March 1960, when the lives of 69 men, women and children were lost on the day, we need to ask ourselves as a nation if this day is still relevant.
In an email interview, we spoke to former President of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) Letlapa Mphahlele about what his thoughts are of Human Rights Day.
When asked if we still need to have a holiday on this day, he said:
“A holiday is a yearly reminder about a person or event of profound meaning to the living and the posterity. Sharpeville or Langa Day has such immensely profound to us and to our descendants. Therefore we must have a holiday on this day. Not so much to relax but to reflect on the journey travelled and plan the journey lying ahead. We owe it to the martyrs who laid their lives on 21 March 1960”.
Asked as to what the day meant to the PAC, he said:
“This day means a lot not only to the PAC, but to the whole nation, indeed, the whole world as the day was immortalized in the United Nations calendar. The day marked a turning point in the struggle politics: from protest to challenge; from fear of prison to daring the police to arrest the marchers as they marched on to the police station, this was a day unlike any other. It had diplomatic, trade and military ramifications. Following this day, South Africa was expelled from the Commonwealth and declared an International Pariah State. South African goods were boycotted through comprehensive trade embargo, and the liberation movements resorted to the armed struggle as a principal form of struggle”.
What should this day mean to South Africans and how should we be celebrating this day, he said:
“To all South Africans, this day should mean the soaring of human spirit above an evil system. We have to reckon that our freedom was costly; it was never FREE! People had to shed blood and tears for us to be where we are today. Robben Island was re-opened as a prison for political prisoners. The whole country was wrapped in a veil of gloom and scores of innocent lives were machine-gunned in Langa and Sharpeville. Asking the PAC to celebrate 21 March is like asking the Jews to celebrate the Holocaust. We will never celebrate Massacres; we will always commemorate them with the solemnity they deserve. Celebrating a massacre is like committing another massacre on the same people: massacre of the memory. This day should be commemorated with utmost dignity and respect. It’s like a national shrine and one shouldn’t go to a shrine drunk and mouthing obscenities and lies.
The change of name from Sharpeville Massacre to Human Rights Day, are you happy with that, he said:
“Firstly, the day was not initially included in public holidays. The PAC had to mount a serious fight to have the day declared a public holiday. The PAC and many people with a sense of history, like internationally renowned photographer Alf Khumalo, demanded that the day be called Sharpeville Day. Even the US has Martin Luther Day, and not Human Rights Day, notwithstanding the fact that King was a pioneer of human rights. The human rights stuff smacks of attempts to dilute our heroic history. Let’s remember that those tens of thousands, who followed Robert Sobukwe and his colleagues, shouted the slogan: ‘Izwe Lethu’- the Land is ours. This implies that they wanted people’s rights: the right to reclaim our stolen land. Confining the struggle to human rights perpetuated the myth that democracy is all we were struggling for. Not true. We were, in fact, we are still struggling for the return of our land, together with its riches.
In terms of Human Rights as a country, how would you rate us, looking at the xenophobic instances that happen in our communities now and again, he concluded:
“For South Africans, human rights are just a slogan. The truth is: only the rich enjoy human rights. The right to life is enshrined in our Constitution. But the poor die prematurely of preventable and treatable diseases due to unhygienic dwellings, poor nutrition and violence wreaking havoc in poverty-stricken areas. Hospitals and clinics for the poor are under-staffed, ill-equipped and poorly managed. Even justice is enjoyed by the rich. Those with money buy their way out of prison. Justice, health and even life are commodified. Private schools, private clinics and private property are islands of privilege in a sea of poverty. How can you enjoy Human Rights without a roof over your head and food on your table?
“The situation is far worse for our brothers and sisters hailing from north of the Limpopo River. They are hunted and torched to death by their fellow African brothers and sisters. This is a special strain of xenophobia: it is Afrophobia. The worst form of self-hatred. We kill foreigners and loot their businesses – human beings like us! South Africans are not living the ideal of human rights, we are simply sloganising it”.