Sixty years on, the scars of the Sharpeville massacre remain
The global outrage that erupted would be a watershed in the struggle against apartheid, but it would take another three-and-a-half decades before Nelson Mandela would be inaugurated as the country’s first black president.
Saturday, 60 years later, the site where they perished, just off Seiso Street, in Sharpeville, is a human rights precinct - opened by Mandela, in 2002. On a lawn, beyond the big glass windows, on the ground floor of the centre, stand 69 white plinths.
They stand at different angles. Each one of them has a name engraved, in a steel plate affixed to the top. Below it a number - their age on the day they were shot and killed, where those plinths stand. James B Bessie was 12. Maria Molebatsi 13. David Makhoba 14. Zaccheus R Maysiels has no age. David Maphike is closest to the fence. He was 50 that day, as was Zekia Lefakane. Gilbert P Dimo seems to have been the oldest at 53.
The centre is light and airy - and grim. You can follow the walkway or take the stairs between the two levels. The only adornment on the walls are photographs. The top level reminds you that Sharpeville was only one of a series of tragedies, visited upon the so-called Vaal Triangle; Boipatong, the Sebokeng massacre, the Nangalembe Night Vigil Massacre, and the Gobazitwana massacre, would all follow during the death throes of apartheid.
Downstairs, the photographs are of 1960. Brutal in their monotone. Dead bodies just beyond where the precinct stands today. Bodies being loaded in tarpaulins, into the back of open trucks - an industrial solution for an industrial scale killing. Bodies lying like detritus, on the side of the road. Humans fleeing, captured by the lens of Ian Berry, the only photographer there.
But the centre also reminds us that South Africa’s much vaunted constitution was signed into law on December 10, 1996, by Mandela - down the road, at George Thabe Stadium. A much younger Cyril Ramaphosa, today the president of the country. looks over his shoulder in the oversized photograph.
Beyond the plinths is a SANCA centre “The Vaal Triangle Alcohol and Drug Help Centre”. Across the road is the police station itself, except it isn’t any more. Today the police station, that became a byword for brutality, is a community hub for arts and crafts; the Extended Public Works Programme, and a soup kitchen for the needy.
There’s a group of EPWP workers making their way out of the old red brick building and past the chain link fence. Beyond them is the smell of dagga wafting in the air, from one of the offices in the open space, between the cells and the old charge office.
In one of the offices, down the corridor from the charge office, is a group of elderly residents. This is the Khulumani Support Group. They’re chaired by Mrs Selloane Phethane, a 75-year-old granny. They are all survivors and, as their name suggests, their job is to ensure no one forgets what happened.
“People avoided speaking out,” Phethane explains, “some died in their houses because off the pain in their hearts.”
She was 15 when the Saracens drove past to reinforce the beleaguered police station. She thought the machine gun swivelling in the turret was a camera so she pirouetted for it. She thought the fighter jets that dive bombed the crowds to make them disperse would drop toys, so she danced for them too. Then she heard the gunfire and saw the people running towards her.
She’d been told to stay home by her parents but, caught up in the excitement, she couldn’t stay away. She snuck out of her home on the main road and joined the march at the back.
“When we got near the shop, a woman came running. ‘Get back, get back’, she shouted. There was blood running down her arm. Mr Maratwana followed her. He was shouting ‘go back’ too.”
The children turned and ran.
Her uncle was killed. Her brother Tsekelo Qobela was arrested afterwards.
“The police took him in the June holidays. They said they were deporting him to Lesotho because he was from there. We never saw him again. My parents died without seeing him. That’s when I joined politics.”
Phethane doesn’t just remember March 1960. She reels off all the other massacres she’s lived through.
“I was born here, I grew up here, I was married here. I had four children, one was a politician killed in 1992, the other took his life last year. I have 11 grandchildren.”
She’s bitter, unashamedly.
“It’s 60 years but we’re still crying. Our government doesn’t care.”
She’s particularly scathing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“We were promised R120000 for each survivor but they just gave R30000 - and not to all of us.
“Last year, I spoke to the president, telling him what we need. He promised he’d help us but, till now, nothing,” she says.
There are 150 survivors, of the various massacres, still living in Sharpeville, she says. Some still have bullets lodged in their bodies. There are still six from the March 21 shooting.
As for the current generation, the children are unemployed - and they are squandering what little chance they have with drugs.
“Nyaope is killing them,” she says. “What freedom did we win?”
The Khulumani Support Group are all volunteers, they raise funds for their outreach projects by making candles, soap and beadwork, which they sell. They put on plays and tell stories about the massacres.
This week, they were due to clean the graves, among performing their story telling at VUT - but all that was before everything was cancelled on Sunday night, as the government tried to get a grip on the Covid-19 crisis sweeping the world.
“The graves are broken and dirty,” Phethane says. “They say they will maintain them,” she says referring to the government, “but they don’t.”
Phelindaba cemetery is 3km away.
It’s quiet there. The summer sun is warm, there’s smoke billowing from the huge cooling towers of Vanderbijlpark, a covey of plover run across the ground.
The graves are unmistakeable, fronted by a gaudy green and gold structure; 69 in a row, lying due south - facing east to the rising sun.
They’re in good shape, many of them redone by the South African Heritage Resources Agency, simple marble headstones. Others are more grandiose. The graves around them are in a state of disrepair, however - sunken, headstones vandalised. But, of the 69, only the little kerbstone walls around each are slightly broken, weeds sprouting amid the gravel that lies atop each one. The marble, on the other side of the green and gold Pan Africanist Congress monument, that lies to the north, though is smashed - and then piled neatly at the foot of the monument.
The memorial to the 69, on the other side of the road, unveiled by then Gauteng premier Nomvula Mokonyane, in 2011, is another story altogether.
The grass terrace is returning to the veld from which it was cut, the marble has been smashed. The inscriptions etched in stainless steel are gone. The public toilets, beyond the unexplained 26 mis-sized columns, vandalised.
A lot of work went into this garden of remembrance, but it seems long forgotten - unlike the Heritage Centre with its benches among the plinths, the reflecting pool and the channel that runs down the centre - the water of life a metaphor for the Struggle for human rights.
Except that there is no water. The fountain doesn’t run, many of the pebbles in the reflecting pool are gone. The pool itself is empty, the channel is dry and there’s grass growing through the concrete of the exposed drains. Outside the centre, at least, the marble plaques still stand - four of them with the names of the 69.
Together, it feels a truer metaphor for the state of the country than its creators ever intended.