In May 2009, the City of Cape Town initiated a competition for the installation of a Memorial on Langa’s Washington Square to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of the events described below. The winning submission would be responsible for the creation and installation of the Memorial for unveiling on 21 March 2010.
On Monday 21 March 1960, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) launched the first phase of its Positive Action Campaign. The go-ahead was given at its December 1959 conference and from intensive door-to-door campaign work. The target of the campaign was the pass laws, the lynchpin of the apartheid system. The call was made to all African men to leave their pass books at home, march to local police stations and hand themselves over for arrest for refusing to carry their passes. The oppressive pass laws defined where Africans could work, African men and women had to obtain special permits to seek work and how they could live, separated from their families. The campaign was also intended to hurt the economy; with the black labour force behind bars industry would come to a standstill.
Anticipating a trigger-happy response from the South African government’s security forces, Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, president of the PAC, wrote to the Police Commissioner, Major General Rademeyer, on the eve of the campaign. Sobukwe emphasised that the Positive Action Campaign would be non-violent and implored that Rademeyer instruct his men to refrain from the use of violence.
On that fateful Monday 10,000 men, women and children marched on the Sharpeville Police Station in Sharpeville outside Vereeniging from the assembly point, an open field close by. When the marchers reached the police station, chanting freedom songs and campaign slogans, Ilizwe Lethu (Our Land) and Phantsi ngamapasi (Down with passes), the police were lined up armed with sub-machine guns and rifles, many on Saracens (British made armoured personnel carriers) and SAAF jets flew overhead. At 11am the PAC leaders were allowed to enter the police station and then without warning, facing the crowd, the police outside opened fire on the unarmed protestors. Sixty-nine people were killed and 200 injured; most were shot in their backs. An eyewitness described how the front ranks of the crowd fell like ninepins in a bowling alley. In nearby Vanderbijlpark, the response of the police to protestors was similar; two men were shot dead.
In Cape Town, Phillip Kgosana, a 23-year-old student and PAC leader, told the 6,000 protestors gathered at the assembly point in Langa in the early morning to march to the Langa Police Station and surrender themselves. However, on hearing that the police would interpret their action as an attack the march was called off. Kgosana told protestors to reconvene in the evening giving him the opportunity to consult the PAC national office. But after the killings in Sharpeville, police patrolled the streets of Langa during the day broadcasting a ban on public meetings.
Philip Kgosane leaving his supporters on De Waal Drive above Roeland Street on his way to Caledon Square police station. Cape Times, 31 March 1960.
Despite the ban protesters gathered again in the evening and the police arrived in force on Saracens with Sten guns. They ordered the protesters to disperse and baton charged them and the protestors retaliated with stones. Langa was very tense that night as angry protestors barricaded the streets and looted policemen’s homes. The death toll by the end of the day in Langa was three, shot and killed by white policemen. The state’s Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the Langa deaths found that two people were killed and 26 wounded. The only reference found to names of victims includes Cornwell Tshuma, Leonard Mncube and C Makiwane. It was also reported that the mutilated body of Richard Lombard, a coloured man who had driven two white journalists from the Cape Times into Langa, was found the next day. According to the report, in the chaos that followed the shootings the crowd had killed Lombard.
As a consequence of these massacres, Africans across the land were mobilised into action against passes and as hoped industry ground to a halt. On 24 March, 5,000 PAC supporters marched to the police headquarters at Caledon Square in Cape Town and offered themselves up for arrest for not carrying their passes. In response, the government suspended the pass laws on 26 March 1960. A very successful national strike was called on 28 March to mourn the deaths of those killed in Sharpeville and Langa. The one-day stay-away was prolonged in Cape Town but the police raided Langa in an attempt to end the strike which provided impetus for the massive march on Wednesday 30 March by 100,000 protestors, led by Kgosana, to parliament in Cape Town. Kgosana agreed to disperse the protestors in return for a meeting with J B Vorster, then Minister of Justice. However, when he arrived for the meeting he was arrested and a cordon of police, army and navy and reserve battalions was thrown around Langa and Nyanga.
This led to the declaration of the State of Emergency on the same day and the enactment of the Unlawful Organisations Act in April 1960 under which the PAC and ANC were banned. Meetings were banned, a curfew was imposed and press censorship was introduced. Many went into exile. Across the country hundreds and thousands were arrested and detained under emergency regulations and for pass offences and when the situation had ‘normalised’ later that year, the suspension of the pass laws was revoked. Both the PAC and ANC resolved to continue the struggle underground through violent means.
In 1962, Minister J B Vorster introduced the General Law Amendment Bill that included the Sabotage Act that upgraded simple acts like painting anti-government slogans to treasonable offences (with sentences of five years to life). This Act was amended in 1963 to include the detention without trial law that was succeeded by the 1967 Terrorism Act. A massive swoop of PAC and ANC members was mounted by the security forces in 1963, on Poqo, the PAC’s underground armed wing, and on Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC. Their leaders were arrested and sentenced and imprisoned on Robben Island; others were executed. The liberation struggle, including mass mobilisation and armed struggle, continued for the next thirty years, until in 1990 when the ANC and PAC were unbanned, political prisoners were freed, exiles returned home and formal negotiations for South Africa’s future began.
The UN proclaimed 21 March as the International day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination. In South Africa, post 1994, it is celebrated as Human Rights Day.
In May 2009, the City of Cape Town initiated a competition for the installation of a Memorial on Langa’s Washington Square to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of these events. The winning submission would be responsible for the creation and installation of the Memorial for unveiling on 21 March 2010.
Gugulethu artist, Bongani Mbangeni, metal sculptor Mark O’Donovan and architect Malcolm Campbell together with Shirley Gunn of the Human Rights Media Centre formed the LANGA MEMORIAL COLLECTIVE for the purposes of submitting the proposal to the City Council Public Art Competition.
The submission by the Langa Memorial Collective was unanimously chosen by a panel of judges and the Collective was commissioned by the City to install the Memorial for it’s unveiling on Human Rights Day, 21 March 2010, with a budget of R500 000.00. A further R400 000 in donations was raised by the Collective and included donations from Corobrick, Afrisam, The Cape Times, the Premier of the Western Cape and Vivien Cohen.
The memorial represents a celebration of the courage and determination of participants in the Sharpeville, Vanderbijl Park, Langa and Nyanga massacres on 21 March 1960 which is widely regarded as a turning point in South Africa history, the threshold to the train of events that ultimately led to the installation of a democratic regime in 1994, and as a reminder that the struggle for human rights and human dignity is a continuing struggle.
The Langa Memorial comprises a raised circular podium across the full extent of Washington Circle, upon which rest three legs, forming a portal or threshold, which carries a tall slender chimney-like structure from which seven flag posts emerge. The flags represent flames that constantly flutter in the breeze. Immediately above the portal, is a drum like structure, featuring images associated with the events in Langa on 21 March 1960. The material used is in the main red ‘satin’ brick, the red representing fire and the brick being the material extensively used in all residential and institutional structures at the time. The combined height of the memorial structure is 19 meters and is visible from a distance.
Design presented to the City of Cape Town's Public sculptural competition.
The Memorial is located on a traffic circle in Washington Square, adjacent to the Langa taxi rank, on the axis of the Washington Avenue Boulevard, flanked by rows of the landmark four-storey Hostel Blocks.
The base of the Memorial comprises a raised circular podium surrounded by a circular brick wall accessed by a ramp and two flights of steps. Imbedded in the floor of the podium is the narrative that describes the significance of the Memorial. The floor incorporates a radial pattern represents the PAC logo. Existing Ficus trees have been retained, and thee more planted to provide shade for visitors to the Memorial when seated on the circular perimeter wall.
The primary component of the Memorial is a perforated aluminium drum that acts as a billboard featuring images derived from photographs and newspaper headlines published in March 1960, and a wooden relief sculpture of Robert Sobukwe. The drum is supported on a brick portal element, a reference to the portal element that defines the entrance to the memory garden at the Sharpeville Memorial.
Emerging from the top of the drum are six flag posts bearing orange, red and yellow flags representative of flames, signifying both the continued anger at the outcomes of the events and celebrating the significant impact of they made on the path to the a new democratic order.
The form and content of the memorial has significantly been informed by the consultative workshops with representatives from the Langa community, in particular the branch structure of the PAC, which included activists and witnesses of the massacre in Lange in March 1960. They continue to play an active role in safeguarding the Memorial and take great pride in engaging with visitors on its significance and meaning.
The Langa memorial, Cape Town.
Disappointingly, Dan Plato, the City’s Mayor, did not formally unveil the Langa Memorial due to differences among PAC members for and against PAC President, Letlapa Mphahlele. Unable to come to an agreement, there were two community commemorative events on the day neither of which was attended by City officials.