Post-1994 South Africa has a theatrical crisis of selective amnesia and partisan re-memberings of history. History telling, whether at school, university, in the media or public celebrations and commemorative events, is biased towards a singular political trajectory and one particular school of thought that is portrayed as the sole agents of the socio-economic and political trans-formations that have apparently occurred in the past 24 years. 

 In democratic South Africa, there is neither democracy nor justice when it comes to narrating critical historical events and moments. There is rather a subtle consistent perpetuation of particular memories as less or more valuable and significant than others. South African historiography after 1994 marginalizes particular voices while structuring others as monolithic.

The re-construction and re-writing of histories about the Sharpeville Massacre¬†which occurred¬†on March 21, 1960, and the re-constitution of that day as¬†ahistorical and a depoliticised¬†‚ÄėHuman Rights Day‚Äô,¬†is but one of many examples of this¬†unfortunate¬†political bias and narrow approach to the telling of history.

As we commemorate the 58th¬†anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre, as well as the 40th¬†anniversary of the death under banishment of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, we should¬†reflect on¬†the construction¬†and narration¬†of public memory about historical events¬†and public holidays in South Africa today.¬†The government, through its various departments has already began bombarding the public with mantras of a decontextualized apolitical ‚Äėhuman rights month‚Äô.

For the past two decades, the African¬†National¬†Congress (ANC)¬†government has unashamedly celebrated their¬†‚ÄėHuman Rights Day‚Äô¬†with all manner of festivities, glamour¬†and speeches¬†without ever acknowledging or speaking¬†to the¬†role played by¬†Sobukwe and¬†other leaders¬†of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC)¬†like¬†Nyakane¬†Tsolo,¬†in the¬†courageous¬†events that led to the ruthless Sharpeville Massacre.

Yet, the Sharpeville Massacre occurred as a result of the PAC’s Positive Action Campaign against Pass Laws which followed the earlier Status Campaign championed by Robert Sobukwe, shortly after the formation of the PAC in 1959. Throughout Azania, leaders of the PAC heeded Sobukwe’s call and rallied the African masses for this campaign. 

¬†On March 21st¬†1960, the young Philip¬†Kgosana¬†led the PAC march¬†in¬†Langa¬†Township in Cape Town; Zachius Botlhoko¬†Molete¬†led the PAC march¬†in¬†Evaton; George Ndlovu led the PAC march in Alexandra Township; Robert Sobukwe led the PAC march in Soweto; and¬†Nyakane¬†Tsolo¬†led the PAC march in Sharpeville. As per Sobukwe‚Äôs instruction to ‚Äúgo to jail under the slogan ‚Äėno bail, no defence, no fine‚Äô‚ÄĚ, all these leaders, including Sobukwe, were arrested¬†on that day.¬†

¬†At the time¬†the ANC, through its Secretary General, Duma¬†Nokwe, spoke¬†out against¬†Sobukwe‚Äôs call for a Positive Action Campaign against¬†Pass Laws,¬†dismissing it as ‚Äúopportunistic‚ÄĚ.¬†Nokwe¬†issued a lambasting statement in the Sunday Times of the 20th¬†March 1960 saying¬†‚Äúwe must avoid sensational actions which might not succeed, because we realize that it is treacherous to the liberation movement‚ÄĚ.¬†The ANC distanced itself from the campaign and urged its members not to participate.

Today, in their¬†quest to¬†silence and¬†erase Sobukwe and the PAC from the national consciousness and collective memory of the nation,¬†to project ANC¬†aligned¬†leaders as the¬†sole actors¬†and ‚Äėsuper men‚Äô¬†in the liberation struggle,¬†the ruling party consistently¬†celebrates¬†‚Äėhuman rights day‚Äô without ever mentioning the¬†name of¬†Nyakane¬†Tsolo,¬†the¬†PAC leader¬†who led the 1960 campaign in Sharpeville.

The PAC established a branch in Sharpeville in July 1959, three months after its formation, led by two Tsolo brothers, Nyakane and Job. Nyakane Tsolo served as the branch secretary and mobilized people on the ground; he was effectively the face of the PAC in the greater Vaal area, specifically Sharpeville.

And on¬†Monday,¬†March 21st¬†1960,¬†Tsolo¬†was¬†the man in front at Sharpeville and¬†when the racist settler police called for the¬†Black¬†crowd to disperse, he told them¬†‚ÄúI am responsible for these people. If you want to disperse people disperse your police‚ÄĚ.¬†Tsolo¬†further¬†declared to the¬†police¬†‚Äúwe will not call this gathering off until Sobukwe has spoken‚ÄĚ.¬†The rest is history.

Today, like his leader Sobukwe, Nyakane Tsolo has been rendered an insignificant figure in the annals of South African history, blotted out, silenced and erased from the public memory around the Sharpeville Massacre, an excruciatingly obscure figure Рbarely known, remembered or celebrated. There are no monuments built in his name, no street names, no buildings, songs or poems in his honour. No public speech reader has ever mentioned his name.

The¬†erasure¬†of¬†Sobukwe,¬†Tsolo¬†and others¬†from public memory and national consciousness¬†around so-called ‚ÄėHuman Rights Day‚Äô,¬†enables the¬†muting and absence¬†of explicit¬†references to the¬†broader histories that informed and shaped the Massacre¬†‚Äď a malicious omission calculated to¬†also¬†deny and¬†erase¬†the historical agency and contributions of other¬†important figures¬†in the liberation struggle.¬†This erasure is¬†meant to¬†depoliticize Sharpeville and¬†dissociate¬†the Anti-Pass campaign¬†from the¬†broader struggle against land dispossession.

While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) held hearings of Human Rights Violations in 1996 addressing a sequence of violent events, beginning with testimonies about the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, it also sustained this omission. Nyakane Tsolo, the man who led the march and arrested for incitement on that day, was not mentioned anywhere in the TRC’s Report. Nyakane Tsolo was not requested, nor did he offer testimony at the TRC; a critical narrative silenced.

Although not re-membered or acknowledged, NyakaneTsolo suffered greatly for leading the Sharpeville protest. He was incarcerated, interrogated and tortured severely. When he got bail in 1961, he fled into Lesotho and later underwent military instruction in Egypt as a commando, training with Egyptian Special Forces. Between 1963 and 1973 Tsolo lived in East Germany, but in 1973 he left Germany secretly with his family and took refuge in the Netherlands. He remained in Rotterdam for the rest of his exile, designated as a PAC representative and working with local anti-apartheid bodies. Despite his inclusion on the PAC’s electoral list in 1994, NyakaneTsolo maintained his home in Rotterdam and only returned to Azania at the end of 2001. He died of astroke a year later.

Under the ANC government¬†today,¬†the tragic¬†Sharpeville Massacre has become¬†an occasion to celebrate the advent of a¬†perceived, yet non-existent, ‚Äėhuman rights dispensation‚Äô.¬†For¬†young people¬†‚ÄėHuman Rights Day‚Äô¬†is¬†just another boring holiday¬†without any significance, void of any leaders worth recalling. Besides¬†Nyakane¬†Tsolo,¬†all¬†of the victims of Sharpeville are¬†generally¬†unknown in the public memory. They are a nameless number: 69.

The rewriting of history to suit a particular political agenda pursued by the ruling party, is a tragedy of the prevalent political egotism and narrow, simplistic approach to narrative and discourse; a great loss of memory for posterity, and a spit in the face to those who sacrificed their lives in Sharpeville. Academics, the media, civil society and politicians all ought to rethink their approach to the construction and telling of history and become more inclusive. For the sake of the memory of those that died, and future generations, the true history of Sharpeville must be told.

By Thando Sipuye 

The writer is an Afrikan historian and a social scientist. He is an executive member of The Ankh Foundation, the Blackhouse Kollective and the Africentrik Study Group based at the University of Sobukwe (Fort Hare). He works closely with the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust.