In Gaza’s Return March, echoes of an Apartheid-era massacre

The Sharpeville Massacre, in which South African police gunned down 250 black protesters, marked a turning point in the struggle against Apartheid. But it would take another 34 years until democracy finally came to South Africa. A cautionary tale for Palestinians.

A large group of protesters runs from Israeli sniper fire and crowd control measures, east of Gaza City, March 30, 2019. (Mohammed Zaanoun/
A large group of protesters runs from Israeli sniper fire and crowd control measures, east of Gaza City, March 30, 2019. (Mohammed Zaanoun/

His art lies scattered across an unkept room, amid tarps and spent cans of paint. In the far corner, a giant head of papier-mâché sits propped beside a stencilled wall, where the artist has traced the likeness of a British tank. The image, the color of soot and blood, evokes a particular kind of armored vehicle — the Saracen — which, 59 years ago this month, gunned down dozens of unarmed protestors here.

Here is Sharpeville, and Thabiso Gaedie, its native son, shakes his head politely when I finally ask him about the sign. At Gaza’s Great March of Return, I say, protesters held a banner bearing his township’s name. And in one day alone, the Israelis killed 68 marchers, with well over a hundred more killed since. We Palestinians, I try to explain, have our own Sharpevilles.

But I am not here to talk about Palestine. I came to Sharpeville on a scorching, late-summer day to hear from its residents first-hand, to test the logic that has made of its trauma such a common metaphor for our own. What I found is a place as forgotten as it is heralded; a place no South African I spoke with — white or black — had ever visited; and, as I discovered when trying to find my own way there, a place most foreign visitors skip, opting for the more familiar scripts of Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum or the Mandela House of Soweto.

It’s easy, I suppose, to understand why. According to government census data, Sharpeville is one of the smallest of South Africa’s townships, with a population less than two percent that of Soweto, the sprawling cluster of urban settlements that, by some estimates, is home to more than two million people. Still, Sharpeville’s size is dwarfed by its symbolism.

A mural outside the Sharpeville memorial, Sharpeville, South Africa. (Samer Badawi)
A mural outside the Sharpeville memorial, Sharpeville, South Africa. (Samer Badawi)

It was here, at the site of the massacre that bears its name, that Nelson Mandela chose to sign South Africa’s democratic constitution. And each year, on the massacre’s anniversary, the country’s sitting president, flanked by all manner of politicians, gathers at the memorial to lay wreaths marking “Human Rights Day” — an obliquely named public holiday that Julius Malema, head of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters party, blamed on the “nonsense of non-racialism.”

“They only care about this place once a year,” a Sharpeville resident, who gives his name as Elias, tells me. The 31-year-old is sitting at a makeshift vegetable stand just meters from the site of the Sharpeville memorial. The entrance to the memorial is closed, despite an online listing advertising it as open. Outside its gates, plastic bags litter the ground around a mural showing six empty nooses and the shadowy outlines of a tree and human face. The memorial itself is a bare plot of land, dotted with obelisk-shaped markers denoting each of the murders that day. It is eerily quiet as I snap a photo of it through the gates.

When I meet Thabiso, it is on the Sunday before Human Rights Day, and he and his business partner, Karabo Mokoena, are busy preparing for the influx of official visitors. When he is not tending to his art, Thabiso — who calls Karabo the brains behind their small side venture, Sharpeville Printers and Designs — is busy manning a six-plated t-shirt printing machine, which they secured through a provincial development program. The shirts are emblazoned with “Sharpeville 1960” and, underneath that, a shop slogan of sorts: “dompass never defined us.”

Karabo Mokoena holds one of the shirts produced by Sharpeville Printers and Designs. (Samer Badawi)
Karabo Mokoena holds one of the shirts produced by Sharpeville Printers and Designs. (Samer Badawi)

The Afrikaans word means, literally, “dumb pass” — a reference to the document all blacks had to carry under Apartheid. Thabiso and Karabo recall the pass laws that sparked the 1960 protest, and most mornings, they walk past the memorial to the 69 men, women, and children killed on March 21 of that year. At 37 and 34, though, they are too young to remember the next-door massacre that, by most accounts, signaled the beginning of the end of South Africa’s Apartheid regime.

Instead, their connection to the massacre is more immediate. Along with a small group of other local artists, their studio sits inside the Old Sharpeville Police Station, where as many as 7,000 people had come, on that fateful day, to demand an end to the pass law system. An eyewitness, whose account was published by the New York Times two weeks after the massacre, recalled the scene:

One little boy had on an old blanket coat, which he held up behind his head, thinking, perhaps, that it might save him from the bullets. Some of the children, hardly as tall as the grass, were leaping like rabbits. Some were shot, too. Still the shooting went on. One of the policemen was standing on top of a Saracen, and it looked as though he was firing his gun into the crowd. He was swinging it around in a wide arc from his hip as though he were panning a movie camera.

The horrors that day prompted passage of a UN Security Council resolution, which blamed the killings on “the racial policies of the Government of the Union of South Africa.” That recognition is why most observers cite the Sharpeville massacre as the beginning of the end of Apartheid rule. It is also why the township’s name quickly became shorthand for the May 14, 2018 massacre at Gaza’s Great March of Return.

Yet Sharpeville may be as much a metaphor as a cautionary tale.

After the massacre, it would take another 34 years before Mandela would be sworn in as South Africa’s first democratic president. In the interim, the Apartheid regime unleashed countless acts of state violence against the country’s non-white populations. With each of these acts, international solidarity with South Africa’s freedom struggle grew, ultimately forcing a change in the status quo. But this change would not have been possible without the real lives sacrificed along the way.

Before I part ways with Thabiso, I ask him if he will be attending the speeches around Human Rights Day. “No,” he tells me. “They say the same things every year.” In this, I think, is the latter-day lesson of Sharpeville. As we mark another solemn anniversary in the Palestinians’ long march to freedom, solidarity and speech have their place. But it is only with the weight of lives lost that our words carry any meaning at all.