The Origin of Human Rights Day in South Africa

20 Mar 2019
The Origin of Human Rights Day in South Africa

By Rowan Morar & Nokukhanya Mncwabe

South Africa’s constitutional dispensation designates 21 March Human Rights Day, a national holiday which serves to commemorate those slain and injured during the Sharpeville Protests of 1960, and which calls for the recollection of the sacrifices made to ensure the enjoyment of human rights by all people within South Africa.

Human Rights Day falls within the arc of global efforts by disenfranchised persons to be conferred the right to claim and assert human rights. Initially, this struggle centred – as in the case of the Haitian Revolution – on the push by European colony subjects to be recognised as human beings. Contemporary commitments to human dignity, democratic participation and free press  more frequently fall along the faultlines of race and gender – a reality the Sharpeville protests sought to push back against.

The Sharpeville protest of 21 March 1960 was a mobilisation by the Pan-African Congress (PAC) against South Africa’s Pass Laws, which restricted the free movement of black South Africans. Although intended to be a symbolic and peaceful protest,  police opened fire on marchers, killing at least 69 and injuring 186. This spurred protest action to spread to other parts of the country, which was similarly suppressed by police force, with protesters in Langa fired upon that same day. (Hacthen: 57).

A State of Emergency was declared by the Apartheid government days after the Sharpeville protest, enabling intensified and violent suppression of dissent and the banning of both the PAC and the African National Congress (ANC).

Thousands of South Africans were arrested during this time, provoking a 30 000-strong march to the Parliamentary precinct in Cape Town. The response of the international community, including the United Nations (UN), was to strongly condemn and isolate South Africa through the imposition of political and economic sanctions.

The international criticism of Apartheid was interpreted by the South African state as propaganda or in today’s parlance “fake news,” premised on “lies and distortions in the mass media in South Africa and abroad” (Hachten: 59).

Ultimately, coverage of the Sharpeville Massacre became the central media event rallying international opposition to South African Apartheid – until that point largely confined to the halls of UN meetings (Guelke: 8) –  which lobbying played a central role in delegitimizing Apartheid, precipitating its demise.

South Africa remains a highly unequal society that is beset by frequent protests, many of which call for a redistribution of economic power – the Marikana strikes and protests are perhaps the most high profile and instructive of such action.

The country simultaneously enjoys constitutionally-entrenched press freedom, which allows for more transparent and open inquiry into such events as the Marikana Massacre. And yet, the events at Marikana remain enshrouded in uncertainty and obfuscation notwithstanding the national commission mandated to inquire into the facts of the day.

This points to the need to remain vigilant and guard against state interference and obstruction of justice in the same way South Africans and the International Community fought against the extrajudicial and institutional tactics of the Apartheid government in the aftermath of Sharpeville.

Human Rights Day encourages us to reflect upon and apply the insights gleaned from Sharpeville, Marikana and other seminal events which have compelled South Africa to confront its human rights record.

This holiday also provides an opportunity to evaluate the current State of our Press and its ability and willingness to investigate, critique and inform citizens.

This special edition of the PEN SA newsletter will assess the state of the South African media landscape, focusing primarily on the unprecedented gains and inevitable pitfalls of social and digital media.

On the one hand, access to quality journalism, citizen-led investigation and instantaneous communication has never been easier. However, some data companies that produce psycho-social profiles of their consumers are known to sell this information to security firms and even states that ostensibly seek to use this information to ensure ‘national interests’ and ‘national security’.

While the mechanisms for potential state surveillance are new, the language of state power and its attendant abuses remains unchanged.

The newsletter thus provides a snapshot of two key issues regarding Freedom of the Press: Freedom of the Press and Net in South Africa and Journalistic Responsibility during Electoral Contestation.



Guelke, Adrian. Rethinking the Rise and Fall of Apartheid: South Africa and World Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Hachten, William A, et al. The Press and Apartheid: Repression and Propaganda in South Africa. Macmillan, 1984.

Image: UN PHOTO/Flickr