By Damon Levine, PRUDE Inc. Anti-Racism Coordinator
Every March 21st, people throughout the world observe the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (IDERD). The day, as its name suggests, is meant to be a time for people to reflect on and renew their commitment to eradicating the scourge of racial discrimination throughout the world.
Knowledge of the day may be new to some. However, it has actually been observed since 1967, having been adopted by a United Nations General Assembly Resolution in October 1966. And the March 21st date–more than just a random day in March–was chosen to remember the 69 Black demonstrators murdered by South African police in the Sharpeville Massacre on that date in 1960.
At the time, South Africa was still ruled the policy of apartheid, meaning “apartness” in the Afrikaans language. Apartheid, codified into law in 1948 by South Africa’s White minority government, set aside 80 percent of the country’s land for Whites only, while severely restricting the freedoms of non-Whites. The system classified the country’s residents as either Asian (of Asian or Indian descent), Black (native African), Coloured (generally a mix of native African and either Asian, Black or White) or White (European descent).
Among the numerous restrictions put in place for non-Whites were pass laws meant to restrict non-White movement within the country in general, and specifically into and out of White areas. All non-Whites were required by law to present these passes to authorities for inspection at any time, particularly if they were within cities. Among other things, the passes indicated where a person lived and who their employer was. If a non-White person was found outside of their segregated township of residence without a pass, they could be arrested, detained and brutalized in custody.
In the run up to March 21, 1960, two groups–the ANC (African National Congress) and the PAC (Pan-Africanist Congress)–planned to protest the pass law by having people march to the police station in the Black township of Sharpeville without their passbooks. It was hoped the subsequent arrests would overwhelm the justice system and call attention to the blatantly discriminatory pass laws, perhaps getting them overturned. However, as a PAC-led group of roughly 5,000 Blacks gathered at the Sharpeville police station, outnumbered officers opened fire on the unarmed crowd. Police killed 69 Blacks and seriously injured at least 180 people, many having been shot in the back while fleeing.
At the time, the massacre prompted international condemnation of South Africa and its racist apartheid policies. It also made more people outside of South Africa aware and supportive of the growing anti-apartheid movement. This movement began to grow internationally and, after decades of struggle against aprtheid injustices and atrocities, the system was finally scrapped in 1991.
In the spirit of South Africans’ fight against bigotry, and in observance of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, PRUDE Inc. offered two events on Monday, March 21. During the day, representatives from PRUDE gave an online presentation to the Anglophone School District-South about the origins of the day. We also proudly presented an online talk entitled Privilege, Bias and Intersectionality: Moving Toward Anti-Racism with Dr. Timothy Christie, the Horizon Health regional director of ethics.