OPINION: SA’s exceptionalism, blinding partisanship and twisting of language and narrative to suit narrow political ends are the heritage of our colonial and apartheid past. Yet here we are 28 years after hard-won democracy, having to constantly disabuse ourselves of outdated bias and prejudice that should have no place in any vibrant society.
By Professor Saths Cooper
“All Human, All Equal” is the theme for Human Rights Day this year, celebrated globally on December 10 , when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
When public holidays were announced after Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela became our democracy’s first president, two key historic liberation milestones were conspicuous by their absence: March 21 and June 16. Despite this, June 16, 1994 saw the largest spontaneous holiday taken by citizens throughout South Africa. Thereafter, this signal date was termed Youth Day and 21 March was termed Human Rights Day.
It is appropriate to reflect on the events that led to the banning of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), triggered by the Sharpeville massacre on 21 March, 1960. SA’s exceptionalism, blinding partisanship and twisting of language and narrative to suit narrow political ends are the heritage of our colonial and apartheid past. Yet here we are 28 years after hard-won democracy, having to constantly disabuse ourselves of outdated bias and prejudice that should have no place in any vibrant society.
Denialism, selective perception and limited recall of all that comprises our terrible history and the valiant struggles – often ignored, waged by so many entities, communities and individual heroes who braved their very lives – are rife in our restricted ability to rise above the blighted views we continue to revel in. Views that have brought us to a post-Zondo Commission numbness of trying to resurrect abject failures in public office after they have displayed sheer inability to lead anyone but their lackeys, who either wish to escape the prosecutorial dragnet that is very slowly but surely closing in on them, or who wish to benefit from some of the ill-gotten gain.
It is against this backdrop that we should remember the Anti-Pass Campaign launched by the fledgling PAC, led by the redoubtable and charismatic Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, popularly called “Prof” after he worked at Wits University. So determined was he that this would be the start of the end of white rule within three years that he resigned his position at Wits on the morning of 21 March, 1960.
In his opening address at the founding of the PAC in Orlando, Soweto on April 4, 1959 – Kenneth Kaunda and Kamuzu Banda were denied entry into the country to give addresses – Sobukwe proclaimed: “We guarantee no minority rights, because we think in terms of individuals, not groups. Economically we aim at the rapid extension of industrial development in order to alleviate pressure on the land, which is what progress means in terms of modern society. We stand committed to a policy guaranteeing the most equitable distribution of wealth. Socially we aim at the full development of the human personality and a ruthless uprooting and outlawing of all forms or manifestations of the racial myth.”
Rejecting “multi-racialism” and “totalitarianism in any form and accept(ing) political democracy as understood in the West. ”We also reject the economic exploitation of the many for the benefit of a few. We accept as policy the equitable distribution of wealth aiming, as far as I am concerned, to equality of income which to me is the only basis on which the slogan of ‘equal opportunities’ can be founded. Borrowing then the best from the East and the best from the West we nonetheless retain and maintain our distinctive personality and refuse to be the satraps or stooges of either power bloc.”
We are currently grappling with these intractable issues in the political and socio-economic wasteland that we confront. While deliberate neglect and callousness continue, we continue to retain the ugly distinction of being the most unequal society on earth, with rampant poverty, unemployment, inequality, inequity, violence, corruption, crime, and patent lack of social justice. Yet we boast that we have a model liberal democratic constitution, which is simply violated by those who are paid handsomely to uphold it.
On 1 April, 1919 the ANC’s Bud Mbelle told The Star “the Pass Law is nothing more or less than a system of slavery”. On 6 May, 1919 ANC president Sefako Makgatho called passes a “badge of slavery”. On 16 December, 1959 ANC President Inkosi Albert Luthuli declared that 1960 would be the “Year of the Pass” with the campaign starting on 31 March, the anniversary of the anti-pass campaign of its precursor, the SA Native National Congress. Earlier in 1959 Verwoerd legislated that African women would also have to carry passes. The ANC and the PAC began to prepare for the fateful year ahead.
Sobukwe wrote to the Commissioner of Police on 16 March, 1960, advising that the PAC would be embarking on a “five-day, non-violent, disciplined, and sustained protest campaign against pass laws, starting on 21 March” (SA History Online). The events that unfurled evidenced peaceful, unarmed protesters who left their passes at home and made themselves available for arrest at police stations at Sharpeville, Langa and other townships. Peter Magubane recalls: “When they arrested Sobukwe, I made my way to Sharpeville. I got to Sharpeville 10 minutes or so after the shootings. I had never in my life seen so many dead bodies. I was totally shocked. Never in my life had I seen such a sight. For a few moments I stood still, I could not move. When I started moving, I took pictures with a wide-angle camera lens from a distance and no close-ups. It was harsh and horrifying, what I saw and witnessed that day. This was an innocent protest. The police just opened fire. They killed and injured so many people. It’s a very hard day to remember for me, and one of the biggest lessons I learnt in the art of conflict photography.”
Hundreds of protesters were arrested. Although Sobukwe was awaiting trial, on 25 March he was issued with a banishment order to a farm in Vryburg as it was “necessary to have a banishment order in hand just in case they are released”. As the PAC had adopted the “No Bail, No Defence, No Plea” strategy – intended to clog the apartheid legal system over the next three years – hundreds of protesters were summarily sentenced in various parts of the country, many forced to work on farms. Pass laws helped grow the farming and other sectors of the one-sided apartheid economy. Sobukwe was sentenced to three years imprisonment on 4 May, 1960 for incitement. A state of emergency was declared and the apartheid government – ever trying to stay within the confines of the legal system as it was – promulgated the Unlawful Organizations Act No 34 of 1960. The day after it became effective, the ANC and PAC were banned on 8 April. The General Law Amendment Act of 1956, was amended on 3 May, 1963 to empower the Minister of Justice to extend the detention of any prisoner for up to three years. Branded the Sobukwe Clause, it only affected the Prof!
He was the first political prisoner in the apartheid era to be detained on Robben Island in May 1963, restricted to a “four-roomed house” under control of the SA Police. It was only in 1969 that he was released from this solitary confinement, only to be banned and house-arrested in Galeshewe township, Kimberley. So feared was he by the apartheid system – and seemingly by the democratic order – that much of his recorded interviews and photographs have disappeared. In the Robben Island maximum prison from 1978 to 1982, Madiba would mention how he was confronted in various independent African capitals in 1962 by leaders who asked him who he was, as they only knew of Sobukwe, who was in jail.
The rest is history – perhaps somewhat sordid – because of what those entrusted to do the right thing, largely did things for themselves at the expense of the majority of our people, who cry out in anger and desperation. It is time to resurrect the ideas of the late 1980s of a Patriotic Front, without regard to ideology, but clearly with the intent to restore the terribly waning credibility of our compromised political system. We can save what’s left of our democracy, if we bring together patriots who are seized by the need to do something urgently to salvage the vestiges of democracy corrupted, beyond obsolete partisanship, which is our downfall.
* Professor Saths Cooper is a former leader of the Black Consciousness Movement and political prisoner. He is presently the President of Pan-African Psychology Union (PAPU).
** The views expressed here may not necessarily be that of IOL.