Human Rights Day, and Twitter’s birthday
Today is Human Rights Day, and the 53rd anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre, which it was instituted to commemorate. We’ve remembered it for many years, and officially commemorated it for nearly 20 years, but this time it is somewhat different.
Ten years ago I was at a commemoration of Human Rights Day in St Alban’s Anglican Cathedral in Pretoria. It was a special thanksgiving service for the completion of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the handing in of their final report on gross human rights violations in the apartheid era. Speaking at that service, Desmond Tutu, the chairman of the commission and Anglican bishop, said that we had come a long way since then.
This is what I wrote in my diary ten years ago:
Friday 21 March 2003
Val and I went to a special service in the Anglican cathedral in Pretoria, to mark the close of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We went to Mamelodi to fetch Johannah and Thabitha Ramohlale.
Most of the commissioners were there, and several massed choirs sang. Several of the victims of the human rights abuses investigated by the commission were there too, as were some of the perpetrators. Perhaps the most moving thing was when Anglican priest Michael Lapsley sprinkled holy water on the congregation, in silence, using his artificial hands, because his hands were blown off by a letter bomb sent to him by the security police.
There were also the survivors of the Trust Feeds massacre, where 11 members of a family were killed. They were accompanied by Brian Mitchell, who led the police who had killed them, and is now working on projects to help the community.
Hanging from the pulpit, unremarked, was an embroidered banner, showing a stylised white person and a stylised black person embracing in a gesture of reconciliation. It had been given by Cecil Kerr about 20 years ago, a gift from a group in Northern Ireland that had been working for reconciliation there. And as they passed on their vision for reconciliation, perhaps we in South Africa can pass on ours.
Today is a public holiday, known as Human Rights Day, and it is 43 years since 69 people were killed outside Sharpeville police station where they were protesting against the pass laws. As Bishop Desmond Tutu, the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said, we have come a long way since then.
But this year, following the Marikana Massacre, the thought that we have come a long way since then sounds a bit hollow. We’ve slipped back a long way since that commemoration ten years ago.
And one thing I’ve noticed is that on the radio government people do not speak about the Marikana Massacre, but the Marikana “tragedy”.
And then on Twitter, there is this rather strange tweet from Zwelinzima Vavi (@Zwelinzima1), the General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu):
DA continues its campaign to appropriate struggle history and symbols. Was lying wreaths in Sharpeville this morning
Now I hold no brief for the DA (Democratic Alliance, an opposition party). But when one recalls that the people who were killed at Sharpeville were there because of a protest campaign organised by the Pan African Congress, does that mean that only PAC supporters can commemorate Sharpeville? While Cosatu is not a political party, it is in alliance with the ANC, and the ANC opposed the PAC’s anti-pass campaign back in 1960. Today the PAC commands the support of only about 1% of the South African electroate. Are only those 1% allowed to commemorate Sharpeville? Or is it something for all South Africans to remember? Perhaps such sectional thinking is why the way we have come from Sharpeville seems to be growing shorter. Zwelinzima Vavi is one of the people I follow on Twitter because I think he speaks a lot of good sense. But on this occasion I think he fluffed it.
Speaking of Twitter, it is also Twitter’s 7th birthday today, and I see that I joined it on 14 April 2007, nearly 6 years ago. It has probably come a long way since then too, and here’s an interesting article about it.