Sharpeville remembered: 8 things about Human Rights Day every South African should know

On 21 March, South Africans officially celebrate Human Rights Day to commemorate and to remind South Africans about the sacrifices that accompanied the struggle for the attainment of democracy in South Africa.

While historically it pays tribute to the tragic events of the Sharpeville massacre, it is also a celebration of South Africa’s constitution, which gives equal rights to all. A day that provides the country with an opportunity to reflect on progress made in the promotion and protection of human rights.

Our Constitution is hailed as one of the most progressive in the world. The Constitution is the ultimate protector of our Human Rights, which were previously denied to the majority of our people under Apartheid. We commemorate Human Rights Day to reinforce our commitment to the Bill of Rights as enshrined in our Constitution.

These rights include:
• Equality – everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law.
•Human dignity – everyone has inherent dignity and have their dignity respected and protected.
•Freedom of movement and residence – everyone has a right to freedom of movement and to reside anywhere in the country.
•Language and culture – everyone has the right to use the language and to participate in the cultural life of their choice.
•Life – everyone has the right to life.

Government will host various activities throughout the Human Rights Month to remind all South Africans to continue working together to uphold the culture of human rights. Human Rights come with responsibilities and we all have the responsibility to build a society that respects the rule of law.

Whether we are at the work place, within communities, at schools, or with our partners and children, we all need to demonstrate the kind of responsibility that we would like to see in our country’s future.

We all have a responsibility to ensure that our human rights record and history are preserved and strengthened for future generations. Let us to commemorate and honour those who fought for our liberation and the rights we enjoy today!


Human Rights Day is but one of the many bricks in SA’s road to democracy. Here are a few things about our complex past that happened on this day that you might not know…
1. The Sharpeville massacre took place on Monday, 21 March in 1960 as police opened fire on about 5 000 people who had come to the Sharpeville station to protest pass laws.
2. Some 69 unarmed people were killed and another 180 were injured.
3. The pass law was also humiliatingly referred to as the dom pass and was a particular indignation for black men who had to produce it on demand and could be arrested and detained on the spot if they did not have it on them.
4.  It is believed the movement was initiated by the newly-elected Pan Africanist Congress leader Robert Sobukwe at the time, who called for the stand against the pass law. Sobukwe, a 34-year-old lecturer in African languages at Wits University at the time was leading a march to the Orlando police station when they heard of the massacre at Sharpeville.
5. Also referred to as Heroes’ Day, the event marked an awakening across the world to the inhumanity of the apartheid regime, however it also meant the start of the end for peaceful protests against apartheid in South Africa as a few days later on 8 April 1960, the Nationalist Party government, under the premiership of apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd, banned the PAC and ANC.
6. Following international sanctions and many years of struggle, with Sobukwe having been detained on Robben Island, released and then banished to Kimberley where he died of cancer reportedly in1970 – the pass law was only revoked in 1986 by then apartheid leader PW Botha.
7. SA’s Human Rights Day on 21 March is also the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
8. In stark contrast to the pass law, South Africa’s constitution protects individual rights for equality; human dignity; life; freedom and security; privacy; freedom of religion, belief and opinion; freedom of expression; freedom of association and a right to education – see SA’s full Bill of Rights here.