On March 21 1960 the South African police shot and killed 69 people–men, women and children–at the police station in the dusty East Rand township of Sharpeville, South Africa. Almost two hundred more were injured. Almost all were shot in the back as they tried to escape the police bullets. On that Monday, the Pan-African Congress (PAC), an anti-apartheid movement lead by university lecturer Robert Sobukwe, initiated a series of protests against black people having to carry the hated “dompas” (identity documents) signifying that they were aliens in their own country. As the tragedy at Sharpeville unfolded outrage in the country and around the world resulted in unprecedented media fury aimed at the racist apartheid policies of the white Afrikaner Nationalist government.
The 10 days following the Sharpeville massacre changed the course of South African history. Protests and strikes were widespread and a run on the stock market particularly by foreign investors almost crippled the economy. Scores of thousands of protesters were detained, and as the jails filled, Sobukwe’s goal of rendering the country ungovernable seemed closer. Prime Minister Dr. Verwoerd’s government declared a state of emergency and on April 9 he miraculously survived an assassination attempt. Repressive legislation aimed at squashing any resistance was rushed through parliament and ushered in the dark years of “granite” apartheid as South Africa (overnight it seemed) became a police state.
Subsequently, regrettably, the world has seen similar outrages against humanity, and it seems they increase exponentially as we watch innocent people dying as a result of terrorist activity or internecine warfare all over the world. But Sharpeville remains a high-water mark of shame in the struggle for human rights.
A native South African, I was a young teenager at the time and already a staunch proponent of human rights and an anti-apartheid activist. Today I remain committed to the struggle for human rights everywhere. In 1960 I can remember hearing the military helicopters overhead as the government cordoned off the black townships from the rest of the country. At night, in the Johannesburg suburb were I lived, to the east and west, we could hear salvos of gunfire as the police quelled all resistance. I was convinced that the anti-apartheid movement would prevail and freedom was upon us. But it took 44 more years for the first democratic elections to be held in South Africa, and Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress government of national unity to be formed.
Currently March 21 is a public holiday in South Africa, Human Rights Day. To celebrate the great heroes of that historic moment, particularly Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe and his PAC, and the extraordinary events of the year that shook South Africa, my motherland, a place I love fiercely, I have written a historical novel, CONFLAGRATION. It is a tender love story set against the perverted political furor.
I am hopeful I will connect with the right literary agent for this book. If any interested literary agent thinks they may want to represent this work, please contact me, so with this novel, we can help to carry the torch of human rights forward, as well as the dream of a shared humanity that never dies. I’d love to hear from blog readers too.