It was on March 21, 1960 when 69 Pan Africanist Congress sympathisers were shot dead by police during an anti-pass laws protest outside a police station in the southern Gauteng township of Sharpeville and four in Langa. Picture: Alf Kumalo/ANA Archives
Cape Town - Human Rights Day has its origins in a tragedy fed by the racism of a political party that believed in apartheid - and the notion that black people could never be South Africans.

It was on March 21, 1960 when 69 Pan Africanist Congress sympathisers were shot dead by police during an anti-pass laws protest outside a police station in the southern Gauteng township of Sharpeville and four in Langa.

It was the biggest single massacre of black people during the racist era of the National Party. And although it would take almost three more decades before apartheid was finally defeated, it nevertheless signalled a seminal moment in the fight for freedom by the majority of the country’s population.

Also read: Sharpeville, fatal day which changed us all

The pendulum in favour of South Africa’s racists reached its apex at Sharpeville and Langa. Afterwards, it swung in the opposite direction.

In the decades that followed, the fight for a democratic South Africa was grim, slow, torturous but, ultimately, unstoppable.

The South African government under PW Botha promised they would never surrender. But they did - not with Botha at the helm, but with FW de Klerk, who had replaced the man known as the “Groot Krokodil” as president.

On February 2, 1990, De Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC, the PAC and the SA Communist Party, as well as the release of all political prisoners.

Nelson Mandela, the world’s most famous political prisoner, was released eight days later.

On May 10, 1994, Mandela was sworn in as the first president of a democratic South Africa.

In our new democracy, Human Rights Day is celebrated on the anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre.

It’s a day that reminds all South Africans that we now have a constitution that, among others, protects our human rights that we have a right to move freely without a passbook that we are all equal before the law and that all of us are entitled to basic human dignity.

But it is important to remember though that poverty continues to rob many of our compatriots of equality before the law and of basic human dignity.

Therefore, on Human Rights Day, let us to stand together to fight for those whose rights are still being trampled on.

* Dougie Oakes is the group opinion editor for Independent Media.