By Abigail Dawson
“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
South Africa’s Human Rights Day is marked on 21 March. The day commemorates the Sharpeville massacre, where apartheid police shot and killed 69 people peacefully protesting oppressive pass laws that prevented the movement of black people in South Arica’s urban areas.
In remembering these tragic events, this day marks a celebration of the Bill of Rights enshrined in the South African Constitution, providing protection and access to basic services to ensure the dignity of all people living in South Africa. These rights established a precedent in the hope that we would not know or see the brutality of the Sharpeville Massacre again.
Many public events and festivals are planned for 21 March. Civil-society organisations, under the banner Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia, are gathering on Monday at Peter Roos Park, Braamfontein. The group will march against xenophobia, racism, gender-based violence, and classism to pay tribute to those murdered at Sharpeville Massacre. Part of their call for common humanity is to struggle against xenophobic violence and all forms of division and hatred.
This is in part a response to the escalation of violence towards non-South Africans by organisations such as Operation Dudula. Nhlanhla Lux, an emerging leader of the operation, responded to this planned march in a video on social media. He stated that ‘illegal foreigners are marching against South African laws’. He claims that the Sharpeville Massacre has been hijacked by commercialisation and the state to focus on human rights rather than the events of the Sharpeville Massacre. He satirically claims it will soon be ‘illegal foreigners’ day’.
Worryingly, what is missed in this response is the correlation between the racism and hatred that speared the violence of the apartheid state at the Sharpeville massacre and the underbelly of xenophobic violence. And that what is intrinsic to a person is being erased: human dignity. In 1960 and today, we are talking about human beings, workers, women, children, and vulnerable people. We cannot return to a point where people are told they are voiceless. We must dismantle the systemic social, economic and political disparities which deliberately silence people or preferably do not listen to them.
Operation Dudula emerges as the newest iteration of historical movements targeting non-nationals for systemic challenges in South African society. It is important we understand its emergence. South Africa has been marked as one of the most unequal societies globally. Socio-economic inequality is pervasive. The systemic ghost of colonial and apartheid history in South Africa and failings of post-1994 democracy, resulting in high levels of unemployment, poverty and crime, has meant that a growing working and precarious class are frustrated by their daily living circumstances and continued disillusionment by the state.
Xenophobia and resulting violence will continue where local politicians and leaders gain power where the state has lost theirs. This results in appointed community leaders using violence against an agreed-upon victim to yield further power to answer complex systemic challenges quickly.
May we continue to point our finger back to those in power who think people are voiceless. May we all be heard.