4 out of 5 people do not know of great moments in South Africa’s history – like the Sharpeville massacre

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Benjamin Roberts, Gregory Houston, Jare Struwig and Steven Gordon

The annual human rights day holiday in South Africa at the end of March commemorates the Sharpeville massacre when police opened fire on a crowd of unarmed black protesters outside the Sharpeville police station on March 21, 1960. An estimated 69 people were killed and 180 injured, many shot in the back as they fled the scene.

The protest, led by the Azania Pan-African Congress, was against the hated identification document known as a “dompas” (dumb passport) that the apartheid regime forced black people to wear and controlled their movements.

After the first democratic elections in 1994, President Mandela made March 21 a public holiday to commemorate the immense human rights violations of apartheid symbolized by the 1960 massacre.

He made another significant symbolic gesture: he chose Sharpeville, some 70 km south of Johannesburg, as the place where he signed the country’s constitution on December 10, 1996.

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Unfortunately, human rights violations in democratic South Africa continue 27 years after the end of apartheid. The Sharpeville echoes are still evident, particularly with regard to police behavior towards South Africans.

In this article, we draw on survey data to raise awareness of the Sharpeville massacre and on views on the general importance of remembering a painful past.

We believe this is important as the way people understand the past is likely to have a clear impact on supporting a social pact and the actions that go with it to address the country’s challenges. At the top of the list are poverty, inequality and unemployment.

Who remembers what?

To study the patterns of collective memory in the country, the Human Sciences Research Council has drafted questions for inclusion in its annual round of the South African Social Attitudes Survey. The survey, conducted between March 2020 and February 2021, included 2,844 respondents who were older than 15 years.

The results suggest that basic public awareness of major historical events in the country is low. However, respondents recognized the importance of remembering the past.

In the survey, respondents were asked, “How familiar are you with the following historical events? Sharpeville Massacre 1960 ”. Two fifths (39%) had never heard of this event before (Figure 1). Another 58% said they had heard of it, 39% of whom knew little or nothing about it. Only 19% knew enough about it to describe to a friend.

Figure 1: Awareness of the Sharpeville massacre (1960) (%) Source: HSRC South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS), round 17 (2020/21)

Many will be shocked at the limited public knowledge of a key event in modern South African history. For perspective, we compared what we learned about the Sharpeville Massacre to what we learned from both the 1955 Charter of Freedom and the 1976 Soweto Uprising.

The Freedom Charter is the declaration of the basic principles that guided the African National Congress and allied organizations in the fight against apartheid after it was adopted on June 26, 1955 at the “People’s Congress” in Kliptown, Johannesburg. The 1976 Soweto Uprising was sparked by the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in some subjects for African students that year. The marching students were hit by armed police who fired at them, killing several. This led to national resistance a few months later.

In the survey, awareness of the Freedom Charter was similar to the Sharpeville massacre, with 57% hearing about it and 40% not. Basic familiarity with the 1976 Soweto Youth Uprising was higher at 71% and 27% said they had no knowledge of it.

In all three cases, the proportion of respondents who were confident that they could describe these historical events to someone else was only between 18% and 29%.

These results suggest that the level of knowledge about certain events remains quite low.

Source: HSRC South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS), Round 17 (2020/21)


Another notable result was the wide variation in the level of consciousness. A large generation gap in awareness of the Sharpeville massacre is evident. 60% of 16 to 24 year olds have never heard of this important event.

There was also a strong class gap. For example, poor and rural adults were less well known.

Figure 1: Awareness of the Sharpeville massacre (1960) (%) HSRC South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS), round 17 (2020/21)

The influence of education was particularly pronounced in raising awareness. The more educated an individual was, the more likely it was that they would become aware of the Sharpeville massacre.

Why it matters

When asked “How important or unimportant do you think historical events like the Sharpeville Massacre and the Charter of Freedom do you think are for people living in South Africa today?”, 74% said it was “very” or “somewhat” important. Only 14% said it was “not very” or “not at all” important to remember the past, while 12% were unsure.

This view is widespread among a large number of citizens regardless of personal socio-economic and demographic characteristics. Across a range of variables, the proportion of respondents who believe in the importance of historical events does not fall below 60% and goes up to 85%.

Those more knowledgeable about events like the Sharpeville Massacre showed a keener sense of the importance of collective memory than those who were unconscious.

The way in which Germany approached its traumatic Nazi history clearly shows how a society can reckon with its past. It is recognized that the country has developed an acute historical sensibility that maintains an understanding of the past through ongoing education and information efforts.

Not to forget

The lack of familiarity with important historical events indicates that the development of the national collective memory in South Africa has serious flaws.

A national collective memory is critical to achieving a national identity, as identities are closely related to the shared memories, including values, that a group possesses. In the case of South Africa, a collective national identity would go a long way in building the social compact necessary to meet the many challenges the country faces.

South Africa could perhaps look to Guatemala. Attempts were made to use education to promote national unity in Guatemala when a peace agreement was signed in 1996 at the end of a violent conflict in that country. The country turned to human rights education to emphasize the diversity of its people and a culture of peace.

One focus was on the rights of children, women and indigenous peoples. Unlike South Africa, Guatemala did not include the history of the conflict in its national curriculum. But, like in South Africa, there has been no failure to develop a collective memory based on a story that highlights historical events that can promote national unity.

Our survey results show that more needs to be done to ensure that the public is well informed about important events in South African history and their relevance to current affairs.

In part, this needs to include a review of the place of history in school and university curricula, as well as recognizing the need for further investment in civic and democratic education. Countries like the United States invest in citizenship education and learning to tackle tough stories and challenge democracy. Perhaps it is time to put this more firmly on the South African agenda.

* Benjamin Roberts is Research Director: Developmental, Capable and Ethical State (DCES) Research and Coordinator of the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS). Gregory Houston is the Chief Research Specialist, Jare Struwig is the Chief Research Manager, and Steven Gordon is a Senior Research Specialist with the Human Sciences Research Council.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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