Johannesburg - A Human Rights Day commemoration of the Sharpeville massacre, in which 69 people were killed 54 years ago, was marred by booing, insults, stone throwing and a picture of a divided township.
Intolerance lingered every time a group of people in yellow T-shirts crossed paths with people in red berets or people waving green and black flags.
At every turn there were police vehicles, water tankers and even barbed-wire trailers waiting to defuse the tension.
While President Jacob Zuma was laying wreaths at the memorial precinct, a group of PAC and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) members tried to disrupt proceedings and force their way in.
The PAC and EFF said they had been locked out of the venue which they had booked to commemorate the Sharpeville massacre.
At the main event, held at the George Thabe Cricket Pitch, the DA’s deputy federal chairman, Makashule Gana, was booed off the stage when he addressed the crowd, prompting Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile to plead with the crowd to remain disciplined.
Earlier, DA national spokesman Mmusi Maimane said a bus they were travelling in was pelted with stones and forced to leave the area by a group of people wearing ANC T-shirts when it approached the township. “The ANC mob stoned a bus carrying the families of Hector Pieterson, Tsepho Babuseng and myself,” said Maimane.
“We were forced to retreat out of fear for our lives and safety when the only intention was to complete the wreath- laying to honour this national commemoration day.”
Maimane said the people were part of an ANC contingent that had blocked streets to the memorial precinct as Zuma arrived on Friday.
“They first lay on the ground, so we were forced to stop the bus from going any further,” he said.
“When we came to a full stop, the bus was pelted with stones from the ANC mob.
“We were forced to postpone our event.”
And it wasn’t long after Zuma had finished his speech at the commemoration when EFF leader Julius Malema – speaking outside the commemoration precinct, where the PAC and EFF had erected an impromptu stage on the road – rained scorn on the president.
“We are not here for (a) music festival. You cannot play music with half-naked artists dancing when you remember people who died for your rights,” Malema told the cheering crowd.
“Let us not remember our people by stealing from them.
“This is the government of thieves. Zuma is the most corrupt president in Africa and the whole world.”
He told he crowd that history would allow them a chance to “correct this mess we created in 2009”.
“A mess that steals money from the poor to build a chicken run. This cannot be a celebration, there is no good story to tell,” he said.
“Those who were killed here were fighting for freedom and their land. It cannot be a happy day.”
Malema told police to turn their guns against the government when they were given “illegal instruction” to shoot poor people during protests. “Those, you must kill,” Malema said.
But Zuma was received with a rousing roar by ANC supporters at the stadium where he made a campaign speech highlighting his government’s achievements, and staking his claim for a second term as president.
“We will never forget that our compatriots were brutally killed for demanding equal citizenship. We must cherish the hard-won equal citizenship today,” he said.
“We live in a country that is better than before and that is because of the struggle of the people of South Africa.”
He listed the government’s achievements including increased access to higher education, social grants, a decline in HIV infections, 420 000 jobs created through infrastructure programmes and increases in the number of children enrolled for Grade R.
Zuma steered clear of speaking about Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s Nkandla report or calls made by opposition parties to have him impeached, but he did mention corruption.
“We know that our people are troubled by corruption and we want to see it eradicated in our country,” he said.
Some residents of Sharpeville complained that the wheels of change were turning too slowly, and many were yet to reap the fruits of democracy.
“Unemployment is too high in our area especially among us young people,” said Mpho Sealanyane whose grandfather, Johannes, was among the 69 people killed in Sharpeville.
“The promises are being made but the delivery on those promises is what doesn’t seem to happen.
“My grandfather died fighting for our right to be equal, but now it is our time to fight for the right to survive with the basic necessities.”
For Elizabeth Mazibuko, 97, who vividly recalls how she jumped over the bodies of those who had been shot by police 54 years ago, on Friday was a sad reminder of how things were more than half a century ago. “There was blood everywhere and every year this remembrance is held I am reminded of that day,” she said.
“I ran to the corner and hid. It was terrifying but we are grateful to God that we are here today and have rights in our country.”