21 March 2020

A poem about Sharpeville, a poem by Dennis Brutus

A half century ago, police officers massacred 69 black South Africans in the township of Sharpeville, where protesters had burned the passbooks that the white-led apartheid government required them to carry at all times.

But survivors of the massacre here are tired of telling their stories: They are wondering when the change they thought they were fighting for 50 years ago will come to Sharpeville.

Residents in recent weeks have set fire to tyres in the streets to protest the lack of basic services such as electricity and running water.

"Our lives started changing with Nelson Mandela's release, but people are still financially struggling and finance is still in white people's hands," said Abram Mofokeng, who was 21 when officers opened fire on the protesters, shooting demonstrators including women and children as they ran away. Mofokeng still bears the scar where a bullet entered his back.
The Sharpeville police mowed protesters down, shooting most in the back. No accountability. Nobody to turn to, in South Africa or abroad. The heavens told black South-Africans they were alone. "You're alone." And so they were. Many fled into exile, and Lesotho started having its first waves of South-African refugees, mostly from the PAC movement, which had organised the protests.

We called them ma-PAC, the prefix signifying more than one, some, several, many. They played rugby at a football pitch in Motse-Mocha near the Setsoto stadium, a strange sport to us, 7 years old and staunch football players/fans. South Africa had just flipped the world a bird and got away with it. It would do so again in 1976 in a repeat performance that became Apartheid's last straw.

It's been a long time coming, but change is gonna come, sang Sam Cooke about America. He could have been singing about South Africa, or the world, even. For what is baffling is how Sharpeville 1960, Soweto 1976, King's and X's murders, the Civil Rights movement, Mandela's 27 years in jail, not to mention the thousands tortured and killed in South Africa, and tortured and lynched in America, what is baffling is how these have not entered the minds of all and instructed them on the evils of discrimination and segregation in all its forms. That is truly baffling to me.

It is also amazingly stunning that all these things happened and almost no one got punished for it, no international hunt for the wrong-doers, no motivation to see them "brought to justice," as George Bush the son would say about so many who had committed so less. Today is a day to remember and to know why it should be remembered, today is a learning day. To me it is also a bitter day.

What is important
about Sharpeville
is not that seventy died:
nor even that they were shot in the back
retreating, unarmed, defenseless
and certainly not
the heavy caliber slug
that tore through a mother’s back
and ripped through the child in her arms
killing it
Remember Sharpeville
bullet-in-the-back day
Because it epitomized oppression
and the nature of society
more clearly than anything else;
it was the classic event
Nowhere is racial dominance
more clearly defined
nowhere the will to oppress
more clearly demonstrated
what the world whispers
apartheid with snarling guns
the blood lust after
South Africa spills in the dust
Remember Sharpeville
Remember bullet-in-the-back day
And remember the unquenchable will for freedom
Remember the dead
and be glad.

Dennis Brutus

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