Unlike the rest of the world, which celebrates Human Rights Day on 10 December (in recognition of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), South Africa commemorates the day on 21 March. This is so that the nation never forgets the horror that unfolded on this day in 1960.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre ? a watershed moment in the fight against the apartheid regime.
In the years preceding 1960, the apartheid government passed increasingly restrictive pass laws, which required African men and later African women to carry a dompas (passbook) at all times. If they failed to do so, or if they lacked the necessary permission to be in a particular area, they could be arrested and jailed.
The ANC decided to launch a campaign of civil disobedience against these pass laws. The protests, which had been carefully planned, were to start on 31 March 1960. But the newly-formed PAC, looking to trump the ANC, launched a campaign of its own starting 10 days earlier.
On 21 March 1960, a large group of protesters set out for the local police station in Sharpeville without their pass books. The protesters were planning to offer themselves up for mass arrest. They convened peacefully at the police station where fewer than 20 police officers were on duty. The military attempted to intimidate them into dispersing by using low-flying Sabre jet fighters, but the crowd was unperturbed.
The police, having called in reinforcements, set up Saracen armoured vehicles in a line facing the protesters. Two months before, nine police officers had been killed by an angry mob in Cato Manor and the police were, therefore, on edge. The police claimed that some of the protesters started throwing stones and the inexperienced policemen fired on the crowd spontaneously in retaliation. The commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar later denied giving the order to fire.
In total, 69 protesters were killed, including eight women and 10 children. Almost all of the victims were shot in the back as they fled the police. No weapons were found and there was no evidence that anyone in the crowd was armed.
Demonstrations, riots and strikes flared up around the country and Verwoerd's government was forced to declare a state of emergency on 30 March. In the days that followed more than 18 000 people, including the leaders of the ANC and PAC, were detained. On 8 April, the government passed the Unlawful Organisations Act, banning the ANC and the PAC. This, together with the resentment felt over the massacre, led to the ANC and the PAC abandoning peaceful resistance and taking up arms. In 1961, the ANC secretly formed its military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe.
The international backlash was also significant. Demonstrations were held in various countries around the world protesting against the actions of the apartheid government and, on 1 April 1960, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 134, specially condemning the actions of the South African government and calling on it to abandon the system of apartheid. Six years later the UN General Assembly proclaimed 21 March as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
The economic ramifications were also severe as international investors withdrew from South Africa and share prices on the JSE plummeted. The increasing isolation as a direct result of the Sharpeville massacre played a part in South Africa's departure from the Commonwealth of Nations a year later.
On 10 December 1996, in recognition of the role that the event played in the fight against apartheid, Nelson Mandela signed the South African Constitution into law in Sharpeville.
Fifty years after the Sharpeville massacre, South Africans talk about their rights. Watch the video below?