Magazine article The Christian Century

Sharpeville Revisited

Magazine article The Christian Century

Sharpeville Revisited

Article excerpt

Thirty-five years ago, in March 1960, 69 blacks were massacred by police in the dusty South African township of Sharpeville. Those killed had been marching to protest the infamous pass laws, which constricted the movement of Africans in urban areas. The, massacre sent shock waves around the world. Sharpeville became synonymous with the racism of white South Africa and the extent to which those in power would go to protect their interests. It also became the symbol of the antiapartheid struggle. Within a few years the Pan-Africanist Congress (which had initiated the Sharpeville protest), the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party were banned; Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe and other leaders of the struggle were in prison or in exile.

Those engaged in the struggle against apartheid have always observed March 21 as Sharpeville Day. But now it is an official public holiday in South Africa. The first Human Rights Day was launched with two memorable events. In Cape Town a special service in St. George's Cathedral was attended by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, President Mandela and other dignitaries. Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu preached the sermon. This was the first time since 1947 that a reigning British monarch had visited South Africa. When the Afrikaner National Party came to power in 1948, its leaders made it clear that British royalty were no longer welcome. After South Africa left the British Commonwealth in 1960s, and especially after Sharpeville, it was politically impossible for the queen to visit. Her return to Cape Town signaled South Africa's detente with the British Commonwealth, and, as Tutu declared, it signaled South Africa's commitment to rejoining those nations of the world for whom human rights are the foundation of social life.

The second memorable event occurred in the streets of Sharpeville. Delegates from a consultation sponsored by the South African and World councils of churches joined the local community and the police in an act of remembrance and reconciliation, then worshiped together in a nearby church. A few of those who had been at the original protest were recognized, and the police, clergy and community leaders prayerfully committed themselves to the task of reconciliation.

One of the speakers, Willem Verwoerd, was the grandson of Hendrik Verwoerd, prime minister at the time of the Sharpeville massacre and chief architect of the apartheid policy. …

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