Connecting Human Rights and Cultural Heritage

The Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 where at least 69 deaths were recorded and many injured, remains a turning point in the history of South African human rights’ injustices. 

On this fateful day, the community of Sharpeville gathered with their leaders to march to the police station, as risky as it was, to register their dissatisfaction about the law imposed on black people to carry a Pass when moving around the area and cities of where they lived. They were confronted by police at the station and the shooting happened.

It was on the 21st March 1960.

This day shaped the Bill of Rights that is now in the Constitutions of South Africa. The pride of many South Africans about their heritage today, is made realizable by the Bill of Rights:  that eeveryone has the right to use the language and to participate in the cultural life of their choice. It further emphasises that persons belonging to a cultural, religious or linguistic community may not be denied the right, with other members of that community to enjoy their culture, practise their religion and use their language; and to form, join and maintain cultural, religious and linguistic associations and other organs of civil society. 

The right to culture may appear as a non-negotiable for some especially the youth that were not exposed to the oppression by the Apartheid regime, but the extent of the denial of this right to the people necessitated the expressed articulation in the Constitution. It is the right that the National Heritage Council leans on as a cornerstone for the country’s preservation of cultural heritage to be a cornerstone.

The National Heritage Council joined the Sharpeville Foundation this year (2022) on the 20th March to commemorate the day which is now officially recorded as a public holiday called human Rights Day. The multi-generational audience gathered at the Rhoda Yende Hall in Sharpeville. This hall is next to the Sharpeville Memorial. The 69 striking obelisk shaped bounders painted in white symbolically represents the lives that were lost on 21 March 1960. The community attending the commemoration started with paying respect and laying wreaths at the Sharpeville Memorial before proceeding to the hall for the formal proceedings.

The main speaker for the day was Mocholoko Zulumathabo Zulu, a Doctoral Traditional Practitioner, Author of 8 published African indigenous books, a metaphysical scientist, a cosmologist, a technological inventor and a software engineer.

The panel of speakers included Lebohang Liepollo Pheko who is an activist scholar, public intellectual, international movement builder and Afrikan feminist theoretician; Nomsa Mazwai a musician and activist for social change. Khwezi Ka Mpumlwana a World Heritage Specialist at the NHC joined the panel to explore solutions to societal challenges and how heritage continue to be an agent for building a unified nation.

More about Human Rights

What are human rights?

Human rights are rights that everyone should have simply because they are human. In 1948, the United Nations defined 30 articles of human rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It established universal human rights on the basis of humanity, freedom, justice, and peace.

South Africa has included indivisible human rights in our own Bill of Rights, Chapter 2 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. The articles of our Constitution can only be changed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament, which means it is difficult for anyone, including the government, to take away the basic rights of a citizen.

The Bill of Rights preserved in our Constitution is the cornerstone of our constitutional and representative democracy. The Constitution as our supreme law means that no laws may be passed that goes against it. The Bill of Rights also comprehensively addresses South Africa’s history of oppression, colonialism, slavery, racism and sexism and other forms of human violations. The Bill of Rights embeds the rights of all people in our country in an enduring affirmation of the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom.

Human Rights Day, 21 March

Human Rights Day in South Africa is historically linked with 21 March 1960, and the events of Sharpeville. On that day 69 people died and 180 were wounded when police fired on a peaceful crowd that had gathered in protest against the Pass laws. This day marked an affirmation by ordinary people, rising in unison to proclaim their rights. It became an iconic date in our country’s history that today we commemorate as Human Rights Day as a reminder of our rights and the cost paid for our treasured human rights.

Apartheid policies

In 1948 the Nationalist Party came to power in South Africa and formalised segregation in a succession of laws that gave the government control over the movement of Black people in urban areas. The Native Laws Amendment Act of 1952 narrowed the definition of Blacks with permanent residence in towns and cities. Legally, no Black person could leave a rural area for an urban one without a permit from the local authorities, and on arrival in an urban area, the person had to obtain a permit within 72 hours to seek work. The Reference Book, or Pass, included a photograph, details of place of origin, employment record, tax payments, and encounters with the police.

In 1956 women from all walks of life, protested against the racist Pass laws, when 20,000 women marched to the Union Building in Pretoria, singing “wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo – you strike a woman, you strike a rock”.

Anti-Pass law campaign

The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) proposed an anti-Pass campaign to begin on 21 March 1960. Black men gathered at Sharpeville without passes and presented themselves for arrest. The order was given to disperse, after which the Police opened fire on the crowd of men, women and children. Following the Sharpeville massacre, a number of black political movements were banned by the Nationalist government, but the resistance movement continued to operate underground.

Modern era

When South Africa held its first democratic election, with Nelson Mandela elected as its first democratic President, 21 March, Human Rights Day was officially proclaimed a public holiday.

On Human Rights Day, South Africans are asked to reflect on their rights, to protect their rights and the rights of all people from violation, irrespective of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, whether they are foreign national or not – human rights apply to everyone, equally.

We must remain vigilant and report abuse and cruelty, such as human trafficking, child labour, forced labour and violence against women, children, and the aged and other vulnerable groupings of people.

What are your rights?

In terms of the Bill of Rights everyone has a right to life, equality and human dignity.

  • All persons have a right to citizenship and security. Persons and groups are entitled to freedom of assembly, association, belief and opinion, and expression. They have the right to demonstrate, picket and petition; everyone has the right to be free from forced labour, servitude and slavery.
  • All persons have a right to privacy and to exercise political rights; all have a right to access to information and just administration action. They have rights when arrested, detained and accused, and must have access to courts.
  • All have a right to freedom of movement and residence and of trade, occupation and profession. In the workplace everyone has a right to engage in trade unions and labour movements. Anyone has the right to purchase property anywhere, and to a basic education. They have a right to language and culture and communities; and not least, freedom of religion and belief. The Bill of Rights also specifies the rights of persons belonging to cultural, religious or linguistic communities and the rights of children. In addition, there are specific laws to safeguard women and protect children.
  • Protected rights include a healthy environment; housing, health care, food, water and social security.


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