Family members of victims raised flowers to the sky and placed them on gravestones on Sunday as mourners sang songs from the anti—apartheid struggle to mark the 50th anniversary of a massacre that drew world condemnation.
Others used the Sharpeville massacre anniversary to highlight the inequalities that remain in the township a half century later, including poor delivery of electricity and running water.
At an early morning prayer meeting in Sharpeville’s Roman Catholic Church, an impassioned congregation raised their voices in song in the stained glass dawn light.
“All we could see were people falling down. It was like a storm ... bullets tearing their clothes,” the Rev. Mary Senkhane, recalled of her own experience on that day 50 years ago.
Police officers killed 69 black South Africans in Sharpeville, where people had gathered to protest the pass books that the white apartheid government required them to carry at all times. Police shot demonstrators including women and children as they ran away.
The Sharpeville massacre drew global condemnation of the ruthless treatment of South Africa’s disenfranchised black majority and led the apartheid government to outlaw the African National Congress party. The country’s first all-race elections were not held until 1994, and the ANC has governed South Africa ever since.
On Sunday, South Africa’s Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, laid flowers at the Garden of Remembrance, and spent time speaking with survivors and family members of massacre victims.
“We say never, never and never again will a government arrogate itself powers of torture, arbitrary imprisonment of opponents and the killing of demonstrators,” Mr. Motlanthe told a crowd of 5,000 who had gathered at a stadium. “In the same breath, we state that our democratic government undertakes to never ignore the plight of the poor, those without shelter, those without means to an education and those suffering from abuse and neglect.”
Many though wonder when the change they thought they were fighting for in 1960 will come to Sharpeville. Residents in recent weeks have set fire to tyres in the streets to protest a lack of basic city services.
Busisiswe Mbuli, 18, lives with her mother and four siblings in an informal settlement on the edge of Sharpeville. The floor of the family shack she lives in is bare earth and corrugated iron walls reveal large holes where rain and bitter winter winds can come through.
“We cannot live in these shelters. They are right next to the tar road, and the gas heating inside the shelter is not safe. And then there are the toilets. They are the worst,” she said.
Mr. Motlanthe called on Sunday for an end to the violent public protests: “The freedom we enjoy today in South Africa means we must exercise our responsibilities diligently, so that even those who are aggrieved by the slow pace of service delivery will not resort to burning public facilities such as libraries and schools.”
“The Deputy President has promised many things in his speech, but we are not sure if there will be results in our municipality,” said Isaac Ramuheshi, a Sharpeville resident in the stadium. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Sixteen years after the end of apartheid, many black South Africans feel that they have not benefited from the economic growth that has made many government and ANC officials rich.
President Jacob Zuma, a popular figure among the poor, has promised to speed up delivery of houses, clinics, schools, running water and electricity as well as create jobs. But he also has acknowledged the difficulties of doing so amid the global recession.
Sunday’s 50th anniversary of the massacre was largely celebratory yet peaceful, despite concerns that commemoration activities could be interrupted with demonstrations.
At the cemetery, neat concrete slabs mark the graves of the 69 massacre victims amid rows of mismatched tombstones covered with unkempt grass and faded artificial flowers. Hundreds of people assembled on Sunday to pay their respects.
“Sleep well. We have forgiven those who did this to you,” Ma Phethane murmured as she laid a small bouquet on the gravestone of her grandfather, who was killed when she was just 15.