The following speech was delivered by Mmusi Maimane during a Human Rights Day memorial in Sharpeville.
My fellow South Africans
The scars left by Sharpeville – and the many other brutal acts of oppression inflicted on our people over decades of Apartheid rule – will never fade.
These losses, these injustices will always haunt our nation. We will never forget. And we must never forget.
We sometimes hear people calling on South Africans to “just move on”. But to move on would be to risk forgetting. Forgetting that the 69 South Africans senselessly gunned down here in Sharpeville 56 years ago were real people with stories.
They weren’t statistics. They weren’t black and white images in a history book. They were people who lived around here. People who sent their children to schools around here. People who loved and worked and prayed around here.
We are honoured to share our memorial event today with five people who experienced the horror of Sharpeville first hand: Adeline Masilo, Elizabeth Madai, Pununu Masilo, Mketsi Lebono and Claudia Sithole.
Adeline Masilo’s husband, Solomon, was shot several times by the police outside of the Sharpeville police station, including several shots hitting him in his feet. Elizabeth Madai, who is an incredible 99 years old this year, went to fetch her sons and their cousins from the protest because she thought it would be dangerous. Claudia Sithole only survived because her baby was crying so loudly that she had started to make her way home when the shooting started. Panunu Masilo lost her sister that day. Mketsi Lebono lost her mother.
We are honoured to have these South Africans with us today, as a living testament in memory of Sharpeville.
Their stories are amongst many thousands of people who were there that day, protesting against the injustice of a system that shut them out and defined their future by their race.
And these people, all those years ago, wanted the same things as you do today. They wanted to live a life of value. They wanted to escape poverty. They wanted the opportunity to work and earn a living. They wanted safety and stability in their lives. They wanted a future for their children.
They wanted economic fairness and equality. They wanted the violence and the hatred that plagued their lives under Apartheid to come to an end.
And they wanted to make it clear that they rejected the government that rejected them.
None of this was unreasonable. And none of this warranted being shot and murdered here in these streets by Apartheid police. 69 people, many of whom were shot in the back. Ten of which were only children.
It would take another 34 years before their great sacrifice would help pave the way for the birth of our democracy. When that day came, their deaths would not have been in vain.
Their deaths would be a reminder that violence and cruelty can have no place in our society, and that this society can only be built on compassion and forgiveness.
Our country’s most famous citizen – a man who spent almost three decades locked up in defense of his principles – was best known for these very characteristics of compassion and forgiveness.
Through his actions, not his words, Nelson Mandela became a global icon of peace and reconciliation.
And through him, this is what the world came to think of us as a nation. To many out there, South Africa was the national embodiment of these traits.
And why not? We had the kind of brutal history that would ensure we would never, ever return to such cruelty and injustice. And we were led by a man who preached empathy and compassion above all else.
We were poised to lead the way, not only here in Southern Africa, but across the globe, in championing equality and human rights for all.
And for a while, we lived up to this promise. But as our democracy matured, we started drifting further and further away from Nelson Mandela’s Human Rights vision.
Under President Mbeki, we started to turn our back on regional injustices. We called this “quiet diplomacy”, but all it really was was a watering down of our principles in favour of political expediency.
Today, under Jacob Zuma, our nation with its once-proud Human Rights track record has become almost unrecognisable.
But it took a visit by a wanted international war crimes fugitive to really drive this point home.
When Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir planned to travel to South Africa in June last year, he knew that we had to arrest him on charges of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity the moment he set foot in our country.
He knew that this was what the International Criminal Court demanded. And he knew that South Africa, as a voluntary signatory to the ICC, was compelled by law to arrest him.
But al-Bashir knew something else too. He knew that the nation that had once championed fundamental human rights above all, had drifted a long, long way since then.
He knew that the president welcoming him to South African shores in 2015 was not the same kind of president as the man who vowed back in 1993 to make human rights the cornerstone of our international relations.
Omar al-Bashir would not have travelled to South Africa had Nelson Mandela still been our President, because he would have been arrested on the spot and handed over to face his many charges in court.
But in Jacob Zuma, he had a friend. Another Big Man in African politics, above the law and not accountable to anyone – much like himself.
He knew that this connection to what he considered his peer counted more than all the thousands of lives he had destroyed. And so he flew here safe in the knowledge that no one would lay a finger on him.
And he was right. Not only was al-Bashir not arrested, our government helped sneak him out the back door and onto a plane as a court was issuing a warrant for his arrest.
Two South African courts have since delivered scathing judgments against our government on the Bashir matter. First the North Gauteng High Court, and then last week the Supreme Court of Appeal rejected the government’s arguments outright.
These courts have called government’s actions disgraceful. They dismissed with contempt the idea that al-Bashir had somehow managed to slip out unnoticed from our President’s favourite VIP airport, Waterkloof Air Force Base.
And so last week our government had to – once again – leave the court, tail between their legs, having wasted yet more public money on a hopeless appeal. Hardly any of the major newspapers or news bulletins covered this important ruling against President Zuma. It’s hard to blame them – there is a lot more that Zuma is doing at the moment that is even more disgusting. This last week, most of the nation’s focus has been on the Guptas – and how President Zuma has allowed them to capture the state so that he, his family, and their family get very rich – while South Africans get poorer and unemployment grows.
We must all take note of the ANC’s decision to defend President Zuma this past weekend. It was a golden opportunity to part ways with South Africa’s most disastrous President since 1994. But they chose to defend him and his system of corrupt cronyism.
I’m sure they’ll put last week’s court defeat in the Al Bashir case down to just another loss in court funded by public money, but it was far, far more than that. It was a sobering demonstration of precisely where our government stands on human rights.
Our government – elected to serve the people of South Africa and uphold its Constitution – was prepared to trample on that Constitution and make a mockery of our own law.
And for what? To protect a man who has caused the worst kind of suffering for hundreds of thousands of African men, women and children.
That’s not only Jacob Zuma’s legacy. That’s how the world now views South Africa. The country that couldn’t grant the Dalai Lama a visa but welcomed the Butcher of Darfur, Omar al-Bashir, to its shores.
Omar al-Bashir will go down in history as one of Africa’s worst tyrants. There will be no version of history in which he is portrayed a normal human being.
He is as cruel and inhumane as any leader of our time. And the ease with which he visits this cruelty upon the people in the Western and Southern parts of his country is just staggering.
It is estimated that he is responsible for the deaths of around 300,000 fellow Africans. A further 2,5 million people in the Darfur region have been displaced by the war he’s been waging there.
His troops and the militias that support them regularly use mass rape as a weapon of war in towns throughout Darfur.
He is a cruel and heartless man, and he is recognised as such throughout the world.
The International Criminal Court has issued two warrants for his arrest – one in 2009 and one in 2010 – for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
And Jacob Zuma chose to ignore these warrants – to ignore the murders, the rapes, the torture and the millions of people forced to flee their homes – just so that he could show solidarity with a fellow African leader.
If we want to stand here on the 21st of March and celebrate Human Rights Day in South Africa, then we need to make sure we have something to celebrate.
We need to make sure this is not just a remembrance of the past – of the countless lives lost in Sharpeville and Soweto and Crossroads and everywhere else across South Africa where people stood up against injustice.
We need to make sure that our celebration of Human Rights Day is a celebration of how we conduct ourselves in the world today. Of the values we champion today, and of the victims we stand up for today.
And I am ashamed to say, as a South African, that we have fallen short. We had the chance to show the world the goodness in us and the compassion we have for those who have suffered unimaginable cruelty at the hands of a tyrant.
And we blew this chance. Our President chose the tyrant instead of his victims.
But I give you my word: When the DA walks into the Union Buildings as the next democratically-elected government of South Africa, we will restore our Human Rights legacy.
We will return humanity to government – not only in how we treat our own people, but also in how we champion the rights of those elsewhere.
We will follow through on the pledge made by President Mandela 23 years ago, and restore Human Rights as the cornerstone of our foreign policy.
Under a DA government, South Africa will once again be a torch bearer for Human Rights in the region, in Africa and in the world.
We must build a society based on the constitution and the rule of law. South Africa cannot be led by a man who today says we must fight against racism and tomorrow defies the constitution. This man has already said the ANC is above the constitution.
It is the constitution that protects your rights and mine; it gives us liberties to worship whichever God we choose, and to affiliate with whichever political party we want. The ANC government – led by Zuma – is quickly forgetting these provisions in our constitution. They will say today that parties are representative of race rather than ideas and ideals.
Like those who died at Sharpeville some 56 years ago, I too will give my life to the dream of a reconciled South Africa for all.
We must build an inclusive nation based on tolerance and rights for all.
We must ensure that opportunities be opened for all, that education be a right that empowers citizens, and that racism is outlawed in our statutes and ceases to be a lived structure of our society.
Let’s build a nation together, a fair South Africa. It is together that we prosper and together we can build a nation for all.
I thank you.