Following the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa in 1994, many changes took place. Mandela recognized it as a moment to shape the country moving forward, and among his declarations that first year was to make March 21 a national holiday: Human Rights Day. (You can visit South Africa on our Best of Africa: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana & Namibia adventure.)
The holiday is dedicated to celebrating the progress that has been made in protecting human rights. Yet it is also a remembrance of a time when those rights were viciously assaulted during South Africa’s apartheid era.
On March 21, 1960, a large crowd gathered in the city of Sharpeville to protest “pass laws,” which required nonwhite residents to carry around passes in order to be allowed access to certain areas. During the protest, police fired on the crowd, killing 69 people and injuring 180 more. The event came to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre, and it was a chilling moment in the history of South Africa.
Today, March 21 represents a day to remember those that struggled to overcome apartheid – including those who lost their lives. It is also a chance celebrate South Africa’s constitution, which codifies equal rights for all people and stands as a paragon of founding principles. Not surprisingly, human rights are at the center of the document: 32 individual rights are listed before the structure of government is even mentioned.
The people of the “Rainbow Nation” are careful not to forget their past. But they also celebrate a future of commitment to the dignity of all people.
You can visit the former home of Nelson Mandela and learn about the struggle against apartheid when you join us in South Africa.