Sunday, March 21, 2010

Finally In the Right

Magnet # 198:  Johannesburg Cityscape

Material:  Leather

Purchased By:  John

The people of South Africa are celebrating Human Rights Day today. And few countries have a dark past that makes them more in need of a day set apart to recognize basic rights than this one.  This observance dates back to the day in 1960 when 69 people in a group of black protesters that had gathered to fight against the pass laws were gunned down and killed by the police.  More than 180 were injured.  The pass laws they were there to protest were some of the worst in the Apartheid system that legally separate whites from blacks and they made it very difficult for blacks to move freely through the country.  They also stated that no black employee of a business could hold a position higher than a white person.  About 6,000 people had gathered in a crowd without their pass books to force the issue and most likely be arrested.  There has never been any evidence that any of them were carrying weapons, but the police claim the crowd began throwing rocks at them.  Uneasy because of the recent deaths of nine police officers at the hand of a mob, the police opened fire instead of using the tear gas at their disposal.  And they kept on shooting, even after the crowd tried to run away.  In fact, many people were shot in the back, and women and children were among the dead.  This incident shocked the world and prompted fierce backlash in South Africa.  But within days, its government had banned all black political organizations.  They, in turn, continued covertly and no longer held passive demonstrations.  Soon, they began fighting back with weapons of their own.  But the fight they had ahead of them was a long one and it would be over thirty years before the victims in that crowd received justice and apartheid came to an end.  

Ever since the British came to South Africa, the natives there have had an incredibly difficult struggle for their rights.  By the time they were colonizing the area in the 19th century, they were prohibiting the movement of the blacks with pass laws, banning them from certain streets after dark.  They also lost any rights to vote.  When Apartheid finally was introduced in 1948, it resembled of the system of slavery in the United Stated much more than segregation.  Sure, the blacks were not physically owned by the white colonists, but their rights were severely diminished.  They were no longer citizens of the country, but citizens of tribes.  They received education, medical care, and other services that were vastly inferior to that of white South Africans.  It was extremely difficult for them to own businesses in white areas and they could never buy land there.  They were even taxed more money than whites.  Black women had it worst of all - they had no rights to own property, almost no legal rights, and no access to education.  If they could find work, they would receive very little pay.  And white South African groups tried to control and restrict their rights to marry and have children.  For these terrible laws, South Africa took criticism from nearly every other country in the world, including the United States, and some went so far as to restrict trade with it.  The United Nations denounced the practice and international organizations like the Olympics excluded the country.  Even white South Africans began to turn against apartheid.  Clearly, a change was needed.  And, finally, it came in the form of a series of negotiations that slowly did away with the practice of Apartheid.  In 1994, following the first universal vote ever held in the country, former activist Nelson Mandela became the new President.  And now, although economic conditions have not changed for all blacks in South Africa, many have ascended to the upper or middle classes.  Finally, all South Africans are free to move and go where they please and have the opportunity to own property and amass a fortune.

Clearly, the people of South Africa have plenty to be happy for today.  Apartheid is once of the more abominable practices administered in the modern world, and it's shocking that it lasted almost half a century.  It's great that they are now able to celebrate their freedom, black and white, side by side.  And for those of you who, like me, have never been denied your rights as many were in South Africa, and some still are around the world, this is an excellent opportunity to appreciate that fact.  Sure, many in the United States, on this day in particular, are not happy with the path of this nation, but at least we have the right to move to greener pastures, so to speak.  And we all have the right to vote, so at least we have some say in what goes on in our government, whether we're here or in South Africa.  That nation has come a long way in a short time and I hope the citizens who suffered in its past can enjoy their freedom this day, and on many more to come.

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