By Imraan Buccus
A few weeks ago we observed Robert Sobukwe week. Sobukwe was an extraordinary human being, a global visionary, teacher, political leader and philosopher who was kept in solitary confinement for six years for his role in the anti-pass campaign; which led to the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. Sadly, he has largely been forgotten. When we observe Human Rights Day on Wednesday we should remember Sobukwe and the brutality of Sharpeville once gain.
But we also face a number of other modern human rights abuses today – like the numerous brutal police killings, and the Marikana tragedy. And human rights abuses continue in many other parts of the world, where people continue to face mainly state brutality –from the DRC to Syria to Sri Lanka.
In South Africa, some of our public holidays have become rituals observed with predictable solemnities, electioneering and, afterwards, equally predictable recriminations about poor attendance and media coverage. There is nothing particularly unusual about this. Around the world the powerful have tended to use the struggles and suffering of the past to justify their contemporary power and privilege. Even in the SASSA and Guptagate debacles, we have seen how the language of liberation and struggle has been used to justify authoritarianism.
Often what this means in practice is that the essence of what is being commemorated is forgotten and the event in question is remembered only as a step in the story that the powerful tell about their ascension to power. In this way, popular heroism has often been conscripted into justification for new authoritarianism.
Make no mistake; in South Africa we must never forget the specific details of that struggle in Sharpeville, and the atrocities that accompanied its repression. A general language of human rights that forgets that in the real world it is always actual people that suffer and resist, ends up being an empty concept better suited to dreary conferences than the difficult practice of actual solidarity.
In some way, it seems that the subtle and well-packaged, sophisticated oppression we experience in South Africa is better than the brutal violence, war and overt denial of human rights that we see in many parts of the world today. It is true enough that we have much to celebrate when we look back at how far we have come since 1960 but we need to be very vigilant about the police and those in authority behaving illegally towards the vulnerable, as has been in the case in a number of incidents in South Africa, especially in light of an increasingly militarised police ‘force’. And we need to be equally vigilant about the epidemic of sexual violence that we have witnessed in SA in recent times. We now inhabit an ‘imperfect’ liberal democracy rather than a dictatorship like in other parts of the world, and so our task is to nurture and defend what has been gained, rather than to simply seek to break down a system. That is certainly worth celebrating.
But the Sharpeville massacre has another great lesson. The apartheid state no doubt assumed that news of their crime wouldn’t travel much beyond the dusty township. They no doubt assumed that they could act with impunity against people whose lives had little value to them.
But news of the Sharpeville massacre rushed around the world like a wild fire. It was the beginning of the end of the apartheid state’s international credibility. It was, in other words, a local event that becomes an international scandal, with major long-term national consequences. The tremendous international solidarity against apartheid that developed after the massacre played a key role in the eventual triumph of the ANC in 1994. It is only fair that we, in a democratic South Africa, offer the same support to other oppressed people just as it was offered to us.
Once again we observe Human Rights Day in South Africa with oppression intensifying in many places around the world, especially in places like Syria and Palestine. So, when one thinks of human rights abuses, one should also think about how the Israeli state machinery denies Palestinians food, fuel, water and access to hospitals and medical care. If the lesson of Sharpeville is in part a lesson of how a local event becomes an international scandal that changes national history, then it becomes important for us to think of human rights in the context of people oppressed by tyrannical regimes further afield. On Human Rights Day, one can’t not think of Burma, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and Syria – and the frightening levels of repression in those countries.
In some way, it seems that the subtle and well-packaged, sophisticated oppression we experience in South Africa is better than the brutal violence, war and overt denial of human rights that we see in many parts of the world today. So, as you reflect on the complexities of modern day human rights, spare a thought also for all the modern day Sharpevilles around the world – from Ghouta to Gaza to Baghdad. The solidarity that our struggles received from around the world after Sharpeville hastened the end of apartheid. Surely we have a moral obligation to stand firm with oppressed people around the world.
Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation. Buccus promotes a reading revolution at Books@Antique Cafe.