The Sharpeville and Langa Massacres: Rewriting History

862 views Published on 22nd March 2017

March 21, 2017 marks the 57th anniversary of the Sharpeville and Langa massacres. It was on this day 57 years ago that the Pan Africanist Congress under the leadership of Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe embarked on a protest march against the hated pass laws. The march was known as the anti-pass campaign. Police opened fire on unarmed protesters killing 69 of them. The government of Nelson Mandela rechristened this day “Human Rights Day” in 1994 and declared it a public holiday. This day has always been commemorated as Sharpeville Day by the PAC in Sharpeville and Langa in Cape Town every year. Changing this day from Sharpeville Day to Human Rights Day distorts history and shifts the focus from its historical significance for political reasons.

The noted Senegalese historian, Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop teaches us that denying a people their history is denying them their personality and cultural identity. The cultural identity of a people is made up of three inter-related factors: the historical, linguistic and psychological factors. In his 1959 speeches, Sobukwe said the African personality must be projected. Like Diop, Sobukwe understood the importance of historical continuity. Next year on February 27, the PAC and the people of Africa will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the death of Sobukwe.

We will be commemorating the deaths of our heroes and heroines in the backdrop of unpleasant political, economic and social developments. I have written about the speeches Sobukwe delivered in 1959 in which he condemned white supremacy and demystified the myth of racial superiority. Sobukwe said he believed in one race, the human race to which we all belong.

Fifty eight years after Sobukwe delivered his speeches, the former leader of the predominantly white Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille, has the audacity to tweet: “Getting onto an aeroplane now and won’t get onto the Wi-Fi so that I can cut off those who think EVERY aspect of colonial legacy was bad. For those claiming legacy of colonialism was only negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.”

To borrow the words of another noted historian, Dr John Henrik Clarke, is Zille suggesting that the world waited in darkness for the colonialists to bring light? The colonialists killed our hope, aspirations and potential. They murdered a generation. They raped African women. They colonised the image of God so that we Africans should not think any deity looked like us. The colonialists destroyed most of the population of the Americas. They killed the entire black population of Tasmania in the Pacific. The Betheoks of the Caribbean Islands became extinct because of the colonialists. The colonialists destroyed civilisations around the world.

It is apparently forbidden in the DA and the ANC to talk about Sobukwe’s teachings. Zille has never mentioned Sobukwe. The current DA leader Mmusi Maimane mentioned Sobukwe once.

We are commemorating the victims of the peaceful demonstration led by Sobukwe and the PAC at a time when the ANC leadership and some academics such as Unisa Principal Professors Mandla Makhanya and Somadoda Fikeni, who was Programme Director at the investiture of former South African President Thabo Mbeki as Chancellor of Unisa, are trying to expunge the name of Sobukwe from the annals of South African history and from the collective consciousness of the African people.

On March 20 this year between 19.00hrs – 21 21.00hrs, the ANC’s mouthpiece, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) radio, hosted a meeting at the Steve Biko Centre in Ginsberg, Biko’s home town. Professor Fikeni and the Minister of Arts and Culture Mr Nathi Mthethwa were two of the panellists. In her introductory remarks, the host of the radio show, Ms. Naledi Moleo, said Biko and former ANC President should be emulated. She said nothing about Sobukwe until a caller phoned towards the end of the show to remind them that they had omitted to mention an important leader, Robert Sobukwe. Immediately after that caller, Steve Biko’s son, Nkosinathi Biko, spoke and concurred with the caller. Nkosinathi Biko said that there was written evidence that his father met with Sobukwe several times in the 1970’s to talk about uniting the liberation movements. Even after the name of Sobukwe was brought up, Professor Fikeni and Minister Mthethwa did not speak about or mention Sobukwe.

This ANC crowd – Mbeki, Makhanya, Fikeni and a host of others almost invariably mouth us pious platitudes that they want to transform the education system in South Africa. How are they going to transform the education system when they ignore educationists and intellectual giants such as Sobukwe who spoke about South Africa’s colonial education system in the late 1940’s? Sobukwe said the following words in his October 1949 graduation speech at Fort Hare University:

“It has always been my feeling that, if the intention of the trustees of this College is to make it an African College or University, as I have been informed it is, then the Department of African Studies must be more highly and more rapidly developed. Fort Hare must become the centre of African Studies to which students in African Studies should come from all over Africa. We should also have a department of Economics and of Sociology. A nation to be a nation needs specialists in these things.

“Again I would like to know exactly what the College understands by ‘Trusteeship.’ I understand by ‘Trusteeship’ the preparation of the African ward for eventual management and leadership of the College. But nothing in the policy of the College points in this direction. After the College has been in existence for thirty years the ratio of European to African staff is four to one. And we are told that in ten years’ time we might become an independent university. Are we to understand by that an African University predominantly guided by European thought and strongly influenced by European staff?

“I said last year that Fort Hare must be to the African what Stellenbosch [University] is to the Afrikaner. It must be the barometer of African thought.”

Any person who really wants to transform South Africa’s education system cannot afford to ignore the philosophical underpinning of this well-thought out approach to the decolonisation of the education system in South Africa. Those in the ANC and academia who ignore Sobukwe’s contribution to the resolution of South Africa’s problems because of partisanship should not be taken seriously.

On the 18th of March this year, some student organisations disrupted an education summit after which the Minister of Higher Education Dr. Blade Nzimande asked how those who disrupted the summit expected the curriculum to be changed. If what the ANC has in mind is just changing the curriculum then they won’t be decolonising the education system, they will just be changing the curriculum. In the above quote, Sobukwe is referring to changing the mind-set of the African people and embracing African thought while rejecting European thought. Is that not impressive, taking into consideration he pronounced these philosophical observations in 1948/49 when he was about twenty-four years old? Sobukwe was fundamentally calling for the implementation of South Africa’s different philosophy of education.

About fifteen years ago, Congolese Professor of linguistics and an Egyptologist, Theophile Obenga addressed African American academics in the US about the importance of adopting the appropriate philosophy of education. Professor Obenga said that education is the most difficult thing in the world and that when considering our education system, we have to put in mind what to teach, what for and to achieve what. According to Obenga, the African American community and Africans in Africa usually focus on the content of education as– more mathematics, more calculus, and more computers. We don’t fight for what kind of education to teach. We don’t fight for the philosophy of education. We fight for programmes. We don’t fight for the mind-frame of the education system.

Professor Obenga continues to say that in western civilisation – from kindergarten to PhD level – there is no change. It is the same philosophy. The content can change but the philosophy doesn’t change. We mimic the West, we fight for the content of the curriculum. We don’t fight on philosophical grounds, on deep thought grounds.

We are commemorating the day Sobukwe and the PAC shook the citadels of white supremacy to their very foundations when unsuspecting Africans are turned into guinea pigs by US pharmaceutical companies to help develop the West’s biological and chemical weapons programmes. African American Medical ethicist, Harriet A. Washington made some interesting observations.

She said that in the US, semantics shape medical policy and practice. The image of the marginalised is crafted in a manner that stifles their voices; subhuman, unintelligent, paranoid and deceitful. The powerless are excluded from input into these discussions. Both English literacy and medical training are forbidden to them. Western medical training includes tacit understanding that African Americans are appropriate research and display subjects. The language of medical science constructs an image of African Americans as medically reticent and pathological. This is no different from what is happening in South Africa and almost all the African countries.

Let me conclude this article with the insightful words of Sobukwe which he said in his 1949 Fort Hare graduation speech:

“A word to those remaining behind. You have seen by now what education means to us – Education to us means service to Africa. It is a tool towards identifying ourselves with the masses. You have a mission. We all have a mission. A nation to build. A God to glorify. A contribution to make. We must be the embodiment of our people`s aspirations. And all we are required to do is to show the light and the masses will find the way.

“A doctrine of hate can never take people anywhere. It is too exacting. It warps the mind. That is why we preach the doctrine of love, a love for Africa. We can never do enough for Africa, nor can we love her enough. I am certain that I speak on behalf of all of young Africa when I say that we are prepared to work with any man who is fighting for the liberation of Africa within our lifetime.”

Africa should remember Sobukwe and the victims of the senseless massacre which was carried out today fifty-seven years ago.

By Sam Ditshego

Sam Ditshego [sam412d@gmail.com] @iamsamditshego


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