By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
“One little boy had on an old blanket coat, which he held up behind his head, thinking, perhaps, that it might save him from the bullets. Some of the children, hardly as tall as the grass, were leaping like rabbits. Some were shot, too. Still the shooting went on. One of the policemen was standing on top of a Saracen, and it looked as though he was firing his gun into the crowd. He was swinging it around in a wide arc from his hip as though he were panning a movie camera. Two other officers were with him, and it looked as if they were firing pistols. Most of the bodies were strewn on the road running through the field in which we were. One man, who had been lying still, dazedly got to his feet, staggered a few yards, then fell in a heap. A woman sat with her head cupped in her hands. One by one the guns stopped. Before the shooting, I heard no warning to the crowd to disperse. There was no warning volley. When the shooting started it did not stop until there was no living thing in the huge compound in front of the police station.”
Excerpt from Sharpeville Massacre (March 21, 1960) eyewitness account by Humphrey Tyler, assistant editor of Drum Magazine.
On Monday, March 21, 1960 a group of Africans in Sharpeville, South Africa were peacefully demonstrating against the White supremacist apartheid “pass laws” when they were murdered by White police. The pass laws of the White supremacist settler group who had seized the African country decades before had become an unbearable burden for the Africans. African men and women were forced to carry the passbook, an identifying document that restricted their movement in urban areas where White people had settled and occupied exclusively.
On March 16, 1960, the organizers of the protest, the Pan African Congress (PAC), had written to the commissioner of police, Major General Rademeyer, stating that there would be a five day, non-violent, disciplined and sustained protest campaign against pass laws, starting on 21 March. At a press conference on 18 March, Robert Subukwe, leader of PAC said: “I have appealed to the African people to make sure that this campaign is conducted in a spirit of absolute non-violence, and I am quite certain they will heed my call. If the other side so desires, we will provide them with an opportunity to demonstrate to the world how brutal they can be.”
The White police did indeed show the world how brutal they could be during what became known as the Sharpeville Massacre. There were 69 Africans killed and almost 300 wounded (shot in the back as they fled the murderous gunfire of the White police) and this massacre led to worldwide condemnation of the White minority who had seized power in the African nation. In the wake of the Sharpeville Massacre where the White minority government declared a state of emergency and arrested more than 18,000 people, even the very conservative United Nations was forced to take a stand and condemn the action of the state sanctioned massacre of peacefully protesting Africans.
In 1966 the General Assembly of the UN proclaimed March 21, the “International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.” The UN called on the international community to redouble its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination. In spite of the brutality of the White supremacist regime in South Africa, disinvestment did not happen on a large scale until the 1980’s.
The Canadian government and various institutions in Canada including Carleton University and the University of Toronto, colluded with the White supremacist apartheid regime of South Africa by refusing to divest and continuing to trade with the regime in South Africa and White owned businesses in South Africa. On March 21, 1986, Canada’s Prime Minister proclaimed in the House of Commons, the country’s participation in the United Nations call to all states and organizations to participate in the “Program of Action for the Second Decade to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination.”
In September, 1988, ministers attending a federal/provincial/territorial ministerial conference on human rights agreed to commemorate March 21 in all Canadian jurisdictions. (http://www.gov.sk.ca/news?newsId=80e2018a-1142-4f65-9235-ec3f03dca78f)
The Board of Governors of McGill University voted on 18 November 1985 to divest from companies doing business in South Africa. In January 1986, York University followed suit and voted to divest. The Board of Governors at Carleton University made its decision in March 1987. Governing Council at the University of Toronto resisted taking action on apartheid despite mounting calls from students, staff, faculty and alumni. It was not until January 1988 that they voted to divest and then dragged their feet for another two years before fully divesting. The Divestment Committee founded by the African and Caribbean Students’ Association, launched a multi-year awareness campaign and sought support from student groups (Anti-Apartheid Network) across campus. They were instrumental in forcing Governing Council’s eventual decision to divest.
On March 21, 1965, five years after the Sharpeville Massacre, African-Americans marched from Selma to Montgomery to bring attention to the American brand of apartheid which prevented African-Americans in the southern USA from exercising their right as citizens to elect their government. The successful march was completed after two attempts where African Americans were brutalized by police viciously wielding billy clubs and fire hoses. http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/civilrights/al4.htm.
March 21, has been recognized by the UN as the “International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination” since 1966. The struggle continues even in Toronto with members of the African Canadian community launching a racial profiling class action law suit against Toronto police in November 2013.