Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Online Letter
My dear friends and fellow South Africans,
To mark fifty years of human rights activism since the tragedy of Sharpeville, the Universities of Cape Town and the Western Cape, together with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, convened a roundtable discussion this week to consider the legacy of the Sharpeville Massacre.
Over the past few days, in various forums across South Africa, memories of our liberation struggle again found their voice. In the National Assembly we remembered the pain and hardship we endured under the strict pass laws that subjected black South Africans to all kinds of humiliations. On radio programmes we relived the scene of devastation that etched itself onto our shared consciousness on 21 March 1960.
Before 1994, although we did not do so as a nation, we who waged the liberation struggle remembered Sharpeville every year; and every year we determined afresh to keep working, keep struggling, and keep going until we reached that day when the prospect of another Sharpeville would forever be behind us.
Since 1994, official events have been organized to commemorate this day, which is now called Human Rights Day. Nevertheless, when I was invited to participate in the roundtable discussion on the legacy of Sharpeville, I was hard pressed to capture the essence of that legacy.
The history is documented and the facts are known. The chain of events that Sharpeville set in motion can easily be traced. But what is the legacy that that significant moment bequeathed on us and on the coming generations? As I pondered this question, I came to the conclusion that Sharpeville taught us this; that in the absence of our vigilant care, the unthinkable can happen.
Although some young people are questioning these facts, the idea for black South Africans to burn our passes was the brainchild of the great visionary, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. Robert Sobukwe had been our Chairperson of the ANC Youth League branch at the University of Fort Hare while we were students together.
Sobukwe was inspired by the teachings of the Mahatma Gandhi of Satyagraha; truth force, passive resistance and a high moral ground. Once, after attending a lecture on Gandhi, Sobukwe enthusiastically told students: "A doctrine of hate can never take people anywhere. It is too exacting. It warps the mind."
It was the doctrine of hate and division that opened the way for the Sharpeville Massacre. The international community witnessed this brutality and was shocked. The carnage by the South African Police prompted the President of the ANC, Inkosi Albert Luthuli, to publically burn his own pass. As he did so, he urged South Africans to adopt the Mahatma Gandhi’s approach of passive resistance.
As a result, Inkosi Luthuli was arrested for treason and detained in Durban Central Prison. Ironically, it was during this detention that he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
After Sharpeville, a state of emergency was declared and within days the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress were banned. Mr Oliver Tambo escaped South Africa and became the leader of the ANC-in-exile, immediately seeking international support to oppose apartheid. In December the following year, the ANC’s military wing "umKhonto we Sizwe" was born.
Sharpeville had triggered a chain of events that opened the way for an armed struggle. Passive resistance had been a hard path to follow. It was by no means the easy way. Another Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the Rev. Martin Luther King, spoke of passive resistance with these unforgettable words: "We will meet your physical force with soul force… we will meet your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering."
Sharpeville gave the measure of our capacity to endure suffering. A month after that fateful day, we held a day of fasting and prayer for the thousands of South Africans who were in prison for their participation in defiance and protest campaigns. Prayers were led by Mrs Luthuli, Mr Alan Paton, Manhilal Gandhi’s widow and Professor Fatima Meer.
These were people who championed non-violence, people with whom I saw eye to eye. I have never subscribed to the belief that violence should be met with violence, nor to the Machiavellian notion that the end justifies the means.
The armed struggle that was promoted by the ANC-in-exile and other components of the liberation movement was a road I could never agree to walk on, although I cannot deny that the threat of violence had its own contribution the liberation struggle.
I believed that the liberation of South Africa could not be won through the barrel of the gun. The cost would be too high. We would pay for our freedom with people’s lives, and that was not a price I was willing to pay. To my mind, there was another way and, no matter how protracted our struggle had been up until that point, there was just no justification for forcing a change through bloodshed.
The 21st of March should not only highlight the brutality of Sharpeville, but should remind us of the determination of Robert Sobukwe and his Pan Africanist Congress to achieve for South Africa something new; a culture of equality and the possibility of national unity.
The challenge before us today is to ensure that no one, no matter their position or status, undermines the unity we have so painstakingly forged. It was hard won and must be cherished. For many years South Africans lived in fear of one another, feeding their hatred and division. We have walked a long road to come to the point of trust, and our national unity remains a fragile compact which must be protected and nurtured.
Respect for our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, and respect for one another, depends largely on the extent to which we are able to secure national unity and a sense of equality. Never again can we allow the doctrine of hatred and division to enter the politics or fabric of our society. The potential for tragedy is just too real.
Yours in the service of the nation,
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP