Years of neglect keeps Langa and Sharpeville massacre scars fresh

Tied by a blood-stained history, the townships of Langa and Sharpeville today share the same frustration: an unfulfilled promise.

The Langa massacre, which took place in Uitenhage on March 21, 1985, is often referred to as South Africa’s forgotten apartheid-era atrocity. And forget it is, or at least this is what the residents of Uitenhage (now Kariega) feel.

On the fateful day in 1985, about 35 people were shot dead – many in the back – when police opened fire on a crowd of funeral-goers in Uitenhage’s township of Langa on the anniversary of the Sharpeville shootings.

Many more were injured in the indiscriminate shootings. One of survivors, Nicholas Malgas, who is now the chairperson of the Uitenhage Massacre Foundation said: “Apartheid police had issued a warning that they wanted only 10 people to go to the gravesite but as you know, in our culture you can’t pick and choose people that should mourn and not. So, we went out in numbers, we were in defiance, and they shot us.”

Malgas, who was an 18-year-old matric pupil when the police gunned down his friends, added that the government has the responsibility to provide reparations for those who were affected by the Langa massacre.

“We also want to see justice. The people who inflicted these wounds and the pain upon us were never prosecuted. Some are still alive and some have died without being made to account,” said Malgas.

Nompumelelo Kama lost her brother in the hail of bullets on that day. Kama said her mother died two years ago without any reparations for the death of her son at the hands of the apartheid police.

She criticized the government for only remembering the victims of the Langa massacre on  March 21, and said after that it’s like they don’t exist.

“The government only remembers that we exist when it’s the 21st of March. On that day we are going to be served a meal, we are going to be given promises but after that, they will forget about us, until an-other 21st,” said Kama.

Mahlubandile November was only three years old when his father Mzukisi Pinini was shot dead during the Langa massacre.

November was raised by his single mother who had to do domestic chores to provide for them.

“I dropped out of school when I was 18 because I had to assist my mother.

“I was deprived of an opportunity to be raised by my father and I was forced by the family circumstances to be an adult,” said November.

Adding salt to the wound is the state of disrepair of the Langa Massacre Heritage Site, which has deteriorated into a shelter for vagrants.

The site is about 5km away from the town of Kariega, in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro.

Malgas said the government doesn’t seem to understand the significance of the Langa massacre in the struggle against apartheid.

“Look at the ruins of our monument because the government withdrew security, now it’s a shelter for the vagrants. It has been vandalized but nobody cares,” said Malgas.

Turning to Sharpeville, in Gauteng, similar sentiments are expressed. On March 21, 1960, apartheid police shot hundreds of people in Sharpeville who protested against the laws that restricted the movement of black people.

Sixty-nine protesters died, and the massacre became an iconic moment in the struggle against apartheid.

The commemoration of Human Rights Day is a sore reminder to those who saw their neighbours and countrymen mowed down by the police, that the dividends of democracy have yet to be realized.

Mapitso Motloung, 72, who was only 11 years old at the time, decried her living conditions. She is yet to own a house.

“Look at the house where I live. I am renting here, and I have children and grandchildren for whom I must scramble [to find] place to sleep in this four-room house,” she said.

The house Motloung rents with her children and grandchildren is falling apart.

“We need to be assisted to rebuild our lives, as during the time Nelson Mandela signed the constitution of this country in Sharpeville on 10 December 1996 I was there with other survivors, and he promised us that our sweat and blood will not be in vain, but look at me and others today. We are still crying out for help,” she said.

Former President Mandela signed the country’s new constitution at the Sharpeville Stadium on December 10, 1996.

Standing next to him was the ANC’s chief negotiator President Cyril Ramaphosa who took part in the drafting of the constitution.

Dikeledi Mogotsi, 74, said she was still traumatized by the tragic events of the day, 62 years later.

“When this day comes and celebrations are made, I feel the pain as I have nothing to show that will be the evidence that I had fought for this country’s freedom. I was jumping bodies of my fellow people back then, running away from the bullets.

“The government has neglected us totally, and we are only remembered when it’s a commemoration day, where we will be taken by the officials to be given once-off groceries. We want to be compensated for our sacrifices. Even families of those who were murdered in cold blooded deserve to be taken care of.

“I am sitting here with sadness and anger when I see other people flourish while others still live in poverty,” said Mogotsi.

The museum and the library that were built as a landmark to commemorate the massacre are now shadows of their former selves. The infrastructure is falling apart.

The Sharpeville Library, with its cracked walls and broken windows, is deserted while the Sharpeville Human Rights Precinct is falling apart and dirty.

One of the residents, Morgan Mofokeng, said that it was painful to see the museum and the library in that state of despair while other iconic monuments such as the Hector Peterson Memorial and Constitutional Hill are well looked after.

“Nobody cares about anything here, but what the government only knows is to come here every year to celebrate and commemorate the 1960 shooting. It is clearly obvious that our people died in vain, as this commemoration brought nothing but pain, as it opens wounds. The only thing that you see here is poverty and hopeless youth who have nothing to do, except drinking alcohol and taking drugs the whole day,” said Mofokeng.

The meaning and significance of the massacre also seem lost on the younger generation who grew up in a democratic South Africa.

Gloria Mangena said over the years the commemoration of the event has been used as a drinking session with people all over the country descending on the township.

“What is it that our people are getting here? There is nothing to show. We are neglected and the infrastructure is decaying, while we have the government that our parents and grandparents fought for.

“The only thing that they know when they remember Sharpeville is to come here to make speeches and drink, then they go back to the comfort of their homes,” said Mangena.

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