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Why we can’t forget

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Human Rights

Human Rights

Before we start with what will end up sounding like politics, let me start by saying how glad I am that at last; we will have that much needed “day off” which we in official terms refer to as a holiday. What is great about a holiday like this one is that it forms part of the “long weekend” and you can ask anyone how “appreciated” long weekends are. This one being the first holiday of the year, it might just mean a well deserved break, coupled with the length, who knows; we may just find ourselves in the jolly “festive like” mood we were in just recently.  And then the holiday will come and we will get the break from school or work, some will attend commemorative events organised by the government or other stakeholders. I like the fact that we usually have a number of artists in these events, quite a range actually, from Chomee to Oskido. Dr Malinga will probably give the events quite a kick this year.

One of the questions one usually thinks about with regards to these holidays is one that has to do with the kind of events that have to take place on that particular day for it to end up with the “holiday” title. And the day is thus named a holiday to allow for reflection or celebration in the context of commemoration. One is lead to believe that the name will therefore be, such that it will allow for future generations to easily be reminded of the events of the particular holiday.

Of interest, is to note that there are a number of holidays in our calendars, at least those not linked to religious rituals, which are somehow linked to events about martyrs and the fight against injustices. In his essay; “On Nature” John Stuart Mill, looks at our propensity towards the celebration of martyrdom, which is a bit ironic when this is put in the context of the belief that life and nature are inherently good, except for the few “rotten potato” type of events that cause misery in the lives of man and thus have to be uprooted, sometimes requiring one to declare, as one of our celebrated statesmen; former president Nelson Mandela did when he, in the Treason Trial stated  he was standing for  a cause for which  “I am willing to die”.  The mention of the former president’s words here is one that contributed to the wish to share these views on what makes certain events (and the days on which they took place) deserving of the “holiday” title in our calendars.

It is probably worth mentioning or rather reminding ourselves that, not all that is in our history books, is the ultimate or objective truth that is supposed to be there, and this is relevant in the context of a country like South Africa, in addition to many other former colonies and now independent African states. In the case of South Africa; my country is celebrated as one whose transition to democracy was a “miracle”, often dubbed “the Mandela Magic”. In another piece of writing, I shall share my views on the costs of the Mandela Magic,  which one would hope to do without overlooking what could have happened had things went a different direction in terms of negotiations or the pre-negotiations alternative. Before we get derailed, let me briefly look at the crux of this essay, Robert Sobukwe and the Human Rights Day commemoration.

Robert Sobukwe is a person I got to know about in the second year of my tertiary studies, I guess there was a point during my primary or secondary school years when his name was mentioned, although I do not quite remember. That I do not remember, is probably because of the attention my  female class mates got from me during lessons or that his name was not mentioned much, I do not think my opinion on this would be objective; I would probably have to ask “Meneer Masilela” who taught us history during the latter grades of my primary schooling. My remembrance or lack thereof, of Sobukwe’s name in primary school is in stark contrast to the fact that; we knew quite a bit about the Dutch colonial administrator; Jan Van Riebek. It would be good to note that; “we” in the previous line most probably includes the reader. That people will know a lot and appreciate the “greatness” of colonial masters is not a matter of chance, but goes with a concerted effort to indoctrinate and position the master as just that; The Master.

T159 and 46664 in the same place, in the same line.

With the year 2013, comes the 17th commemoration of the Sharpeville massacre, where 69 people were massacred in Sharpeville and Langa. Some of the people were shot in the back as they fled from the police. The people were not armed. What they requested, was that they be imprisoned for not carrying the document(Dompass) they were required to carry, by a law enacted in 1809 which stipulated that the black people of this country who were back then called Africans( in contrast to the current inclusive; African) or Natives, carry passes which they were required to produce “on demand”.  On the 21st of March, the campaign started off with a few gentlemen who went from their homes, amongst them Robert Sobukwe, the then leader of the PAC. The PAC being an organisation that “broke off”, from the ANC due to ideological differences. These differences were mainly linked to two documents; the one being what is known as the 1949 Program of Action, in whose drafting, Sobukwe was also instrumental as a member of the ANCYL at the time. The other document being the 1955 Freedom Charter, which is widely believed to have lead to the breakaway of the “faction” that was to become the PAC. The mentioning of these events and differences is to bring across a basic background on the people who brought about this momentous and unprecedented event in the history of the anti pass laws and eventually anti-Apartheid movements of our country. I am by no means intending this as a comprehensive background.

After a trial in which Sobukwe and those he was charged with, refused to plead neither guilty or not, as they felt that; No justice can be served on the basis of an unjust law, to paraphrase one of the accused. Sobukwe was then, on the 4th of May imprisoned and Roben Island was to become his home for the next nine years. His imprisonment on the island was to be in a house numbered T159, this I call an imprisonment within a prison as, he was not allowed to interact with other prisoners, amongst them Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned on the 12th of June, four years later.

It is widely acknowledged, and can be seen in the South Africa History Online (SAHO) site, that the Sharpeville and 1976 Soweto uprisings were in the the two massacres with the highest numbers of deaths at the hands of the Apartheid South African authorities in SA. With these deaths, there was wide coverage on international media, and the world was able to get a sense of the serious nature of black people’s dissent in Apartheid SA. This can be seen in amongst others, an article that appeared in the Guardian a few days after the massacre, titled “Africans urged to burn pass books”, a call that was by Chief Luthuli (then ANC president), after the initial protest which lead to the deaths.

What to consider Human Rights Day.

In an email that was sent to the employees of a particular organisation, which I wish not mention here, the following issues were covered with regards to Human Rights Day; the rights of people with disabilities, World Down Syndrome and some information which was is essentially to the effect of the above mentioned points.  This is not to say the issues mentioned are secondary, but to bring across the idea that there was no mention of the events that lead to this day being regarded as; SA’s Human Rights day.

I feel it is worth stating before I go any further that; I find it fitting for all human rights to be regarded as just that, and thus all observed and stood for equally, regardless of these being about gender, sexuality, citizens’ suffrage.

Is it necessary to remember the deaths? Yes.

I do not for one bit question whether it is necessary to remember the events of 21 March 1960. I may not be the right person or one with adequate knowledge about the naming of holidays but I am relatively convinced that if we do not at the least take efforts like those of the City of Tshwane’s renaming of the busy street; Esselen as Robert Sobukwe and the former Beatrix street as Steve Biko, whose intersection I appreciated as a metaphor for the meeting of these two leaders whose thoughts and deeds I have great respect for. Without such efforts and the governments concerted effort to remind the citizenry of the strides made by those who fought for the freedom we see and enjoy the benefits of, we are likely to take this for granted, and because privilege at the expense of other groups is an issue that keeps appearing in different shades, we may find ourselves in a similar position. This I do not mention for the sake of political gain or sectarian politics but to put the events into context, lest we believe that 46664 was the important cell, let alone the only one.

In summing up, I wish to note that; the absence of a word related to the events of the Sharpeville massacre in the name of the holiday, can is some way lead to a nation that will in time forget or have children born, not knowing how important certain events were in bringing about the conditions so conducive and celebrated for ensuring equal citizenry. This information is not limited to Human Rights Day but goes on to include; Reconciliation Day and Day of Goodwill amongst others, whose origin can be read about in SAHO.

Yes we should move forward, and work on a nation that will be inclusive, but forgetting the past is likely to lead to lead us into a future where we may have to,  as the German Philosopher  Georg Hegel noted, also concede that;

“We learn from history that we do not learn from history”

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