By Nthambeleni Gabara
Sharpeville – When freedom and democracy dawned in 1994, human rights became the anchor of the democratic government, says President Jacob Zuma.
“When freedom dawned in 1994, thanks to the relentless struggles of the people, human rights became the anchor of the democratic state.
“We cherish the fact that we live in a South Africa that is a much better place to live in than it was before 1994,” he said.
President Zuma was speaking at the Human Rights Day commemoration at the Sharpeville cricket ground on Friday.
Addressing hundreds of people gathered at the venue and the nation at large, President Zuma said South Africans now live in a thriving constitutional democracy with equal citizenship for all and a respect for human rights and dignity.
“As we mark 20 years of freedom and democracy this year, it is an opportunity to celebrate all the achievements that South Africans have scored in all walks of life, working together.
“We will never forget the fact that our compatriots were brutally killed for demanding the right to equal citizenship and not to be subjected to pass laws,” he said.
On 21 March 1960, 69 people were brutally killed, while 180 more sustained injuries when police fired on a peaceful crowd that had gathered in Sharpeville to protest against the Pass laws.
Many other people were killed in other parts of the country. The incident became to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre and it exposed the apartheid government’s deliberate violation of human rights to the world.
The day is now commemorated annually to underscore government’s commitment to ensuring that every person who lives in South Africa enjoys equal rights.
Better country to live in
Speaking at the same event, Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane said: “After a democratic dispensation in South Africa, we can safely say today is better than yesterday. Tomorrow will be better than today and there is a need for all of us to say there is a good story to tell about the rights of human beings, the rights of citizens in South Africa.”
Thomas Mathebula, from the African People’s Convention (APC), used platform to affirm that South Africa in deed is a better place to live in today than it was 20 years ago.
Azapo Deputy President Strike Thokoane said young people needed to understand why 69 people were killed in the Sharpeville massacre.
COPE representative Willy Madisha said: “We want to thank the generation before us, who stood up fearlessly to fight the apartheid regime to ensure that all of us here today are free. They’ve done a lot for all of us as South Africans.”
Liezil van der Merwe from Inkatha Freedom Party said inequality still remained a challenge, and her party fully supported programmes aimed at changing the lives of South Africans.
African National Congress (ANC) member Nomalungelo Gina said: “There are so many rights that we are celebrating today, such as freedom of expression and human rights, to mention but a few. Indeed, South Africa is a changed country compared to the one inherited in 1994.”
Origin of Human Rights Day
The democratic government declared 21 March as Human Rights Day in South Africa. The month of March is generally regarded as Human Rights Month.
This year’s Human Rights Day theme is ‘Celebrating 20 years of changing lives through human rights’.
Human Rights Day remembers atrocities committed by the apartheid government and celebrates the achievement of freedom and democracy in South Africa.
In 1960, the disfranchised people protested against the racially discriminatory pass laws across the country.
Residents of Sharpeville and Langa townships, joined by other South Africans across the country, embarked on a protest march to register their defiance of the pass laws.
The apartheid police shot and killed 69 of the peaceful protesters in Sharpeville, while several others were wounded.
South African Constitution
The South African Constitution was signed into law by the late President Nelson Mandela in Sharpeville on 10 December 1996, symbolically to pay homage to those who were killed.
The celebration provides the country with an opportunity to reflect on progress made in the promotion and protection of human rights.
South Africa is regarded as beacon of hope on the continent and internationally in the promotion and protection of human rights.
The nation is reminded to commemorate Human Rights Day in recognition of the fact that South Africa has a good story to tell, and that it is a much better place to live in now than it was before 1994.