POST-1994 South Africa has a theatrical crisis of selective amnesia and partisan rememberings of history.
History telling, whether at school, university, in the media or public celebrations and commemorative events, is biased towards a singular political trajectory and one particular school of thought that is portrayed as the sole agent of the socio-economic and political transformations that have apparently occurred in the past 24 years.
In democratic South Africa, there is neither democracy nor justice when it comes to narrating critical historical events and moments. There is, rather, a subtle consistent perpetuation of particular memories as less or more valuable and significant than others.
South African historiography after 1994 marginalises particular voices while structuring others as monolithic.
The re-construction and re-writing of histories about the Sharpeville Massacre that occurred on March 21, 1960, and the re-constitution of that day as ahistorical and a depoliticised ‘Human Rights Day’ is but one of many examples of this unfortunate political bias and narrow approach to the telling of history.
As we commemorate the 58th anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre, as well as the 40th anniversary of the death under banishment of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, we should reflect on the construction and narration of public memory about historical events and public holidays in South Africa today.
The government, through its various departments, has already begun bombarding the public with mantras of a decontextualised apolitical ‘human rights month’.
For the past two decades, the African National Congress (ANC) government has unashamedly celebrated their ‘Human Rights Day’ with all manner of festivities, glamour and speeches without ever acknowledging or speaking to the role played by Sobukwe and other leaders of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), like Nyakane Tsolo in the courageous events that led to the ruthless Sharpeville Massacre.
Yet, the Sharpeville Massacre occurred as a result of the PAC’s Positive Action Campaign against Pass Laws, which followed the earlier Status Campaign championed by Robert Sobukwe shortly after the formation of the PAC in 1959.
Throughout Azania, leaders of the PAC heeded Sobukwe’s call and rallied the African masses for this campaign.
On March 21, 1960, the young Philip Kgosana led the PAC march in Langa Township, in Cape Town, Zachius Botlhoko Molete led the PAC march in Evaton; George Ndlovu led the PAC march in Alexandra Township, Sobukwe led the PAC march in Soweto, and Tsolo led the PAC march in Sharpeville.
As per Sobukwe’s instruction to “go to jail under the slogan ‘no bail, no defence, no fine’”, all these leaders, including Sobukwe, were arrested on that day.
At the time, the ANC, through its secretary general, Duma Nokwe, spoke out against Sobukwe’s call for a Positive Action Campaign against Pass Laws, dismissing it as ‘opportunistic’. The ANC distanced itself from the campaign and urged its members not to participate.
Today, in their quest to silence and erase Sobukwe and the PAC from the national consciousness and collective memory of the nation, to project ANC-aligned leaders as the sole actors and ‘supermen’ in the liberation struggle, the ruling party consistently celebrates ‘human rights day’ without ever mentioning the name of Tsolo, the PAC leader who led the 1960 campaign in Sharpeville.
Today, like his leader, Sobukwe, Tsolo has been rendered an insignificant figure in the annals of South African history, blotted out, silenced and erased from the public memory around the Sharpeville Massacre, an excruciatingly obscure figure – barely known, remembered or celebrated.
There are no monuments built in his name, no street names, no buildings, songs or poems in his honour. No public speech reader has ever mentioned his name.
Yet, on Monday, March 21, 1960, Tsolo was the man in front at Sharpeville, and when the racist settler police called for the Black crowd to disperse, he told them, ‘I am responsible for these people. If you want to disperse people, disperse your police.’
Tsolo further declared to the police, ‘We will not call this gathering off until Sobukwe has spoken.’ The rest is history.
The erasure of Sobukwe, Tsolo and others from public memory and national consciousness around so-called ‘Human Rights Day’ enables the muting and absence of explicit references to the broader histories that informed and shaped the massacre – a malicious omission calculated to also deny and erase the historical agency and contributions of other important figures in the liberation struggle.
This erasure is meant to depoliticise Sharpeville and dissociate the Anti-Pass campaign from the broader struggle against land dispossession.
Thando Sipuye is an Afrikan historian and a social scientist. He is an executive member of The Ankh Foundation, the Blackhouse Kollective and the Africentrik Study Group based at University of Sobukwe (Fort Hare). He works closely with the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust.
This article was published in the March 2018 edition of Muslim Views.