20 March 2020

Deshnee Subramany

Sharpeville can be plucked out as a moment in time in South Africa's memory, but it is never remembered when it counts.

Sharpeville is a constant marker in our collective memories as an area of an historic event, talked about as an imprint in history once a year on 21 March in the media. It is rarely written about as a visited area, and we hardly hear of politicians seeing it outside of the Sharpeville Massacre commemoration. There is little to nothing written about Sharpeville residents’ day-to-day triumphs and struggles for most of the year. But come 21 March, government officials and media descend on the tiny township, officials make their speeches about what an important place it is to remember, sometimes hand out T-shirts, and everyone moves on, leaving the residents with no lasting effect.


The area was named Sharpe Native Township after Scottish man John Lille Sharpe, who eventually became Vereeniging mayor after moving to South Africa from Europe.

The forced removal and relocation of people from what was known as Toplocation - populated by black people - was done in 1935, as Mayor Sharpe felt it was too close to the white township of Vereeniging. Coloured people from Toplocation were sent to Rustervaal, Indians to Roshnee, and Africans to what we now know as Sharpeville, which inherited this name in 1950. The demarcation and move was done with locals as members on so-called advisory boards, including ANC activist Adelaide Tambo’s father, her sister Ellen Motsidisi-Mohane (84) tells Eyewitness News. She was 13 years old when they moved from Toplocation. Sharpeville had little political activity beyond the stand-out march.

“It was a quiet, nice place. Clean. Every three months, we were sprayed for rats and cockroaches. Our window glass and doors were well looked after,” Motsidisi-Mohane explains.

“They kept the environment clean so that people wouldn’t get sick,” she says. “But after [1960], everything changed.”

In her essay, “The ‘Model Township’ of Sharpeville: The Absence of Political Action and Organisation, 1960-1984”, Natasha Vally explains that the township has not always been political. She says part of the reason for this is that it was created with the intention to prevent political organising, and that people were made to believe it was a “better” place for them than Toplocation, which was established in the 1920s.

“It would be easy to assume that the reason for quiescence in Sharpeville can be … explained by the causal relationship between increased order and surveillance and the lack of politics. While Sharpeville being designed for order did make organising difficult, it was the combination of this and the fact that for the most part Sharpeville provided a better lifestyle to former residents of the ‘old locations’, which had a palliative effect on the population.”

While Vally says remembering Sharpeville in terms of an event “has led to a certain loss of memory of the history of the area”, Sharpeville’s people refuse to allow themselves to be simply stuck in 1960, when a Pan Africanist Movement (PAC) march against apartheid dompasses to a police station resulted in law enforcement shooting and killing scores of people and injuring many others. Even that event is told by residents in different ways, with some who were at the march or in the area refuting that only 69 people were killed. And that is one detail they emphatically remember.

“They say it was 69. But it was much more.”

Ellen Motsidisi-Mohane. Picture: Sethembiso Zulu/EWN

Motsidisi-Mohane is gentle and warm. She is 84 years old, and still maintains her neat home by herself. She welcomed EWN to it so openly, reminiscent of early childhood days of being able to knock at the door of anyone’s home and find a friend or a meal.

She gave a deep sigh when she heard what brought EWN to her. Motsidisi-Mohane was at the march as a youngster at the time, and says all she remembers after hearing the first gunshot was more shooting, bullets flying beneath her feet as she ran for her life. She doesn’t recall who fired the first shot. Motsidisi-Mohane, in contrast to her ANC card-carrying sister, is a PAC member.

“I saw piles of bodies packed like sardines at the police station. Many more than 69 people were killed. They didn’t mention the children who were killed in that shooting.”

Motsidisi-Mohane managed to survive the march after a person standing in front of her was shot. He fell on top of her dead. She remembers seeing the police walking around and checking if people were actually dead, and shooting them at close range if they weren’t. That was when she got up and ran.

Her neighbour and fellow PAC member, Perpetua Mpila (74), was not at the march on the day. She was at home waiting for a friend of hers to return to Sharpeville so they could go together.

“We were kids. We wanted to go where everyone else was.”

Perpetua Mpila. Picture: Sethembiso Zulu/EWN

But fortunately, she says, buses were stopped from entering the area, and her friend, who was on one of those buses, didn’t make it back into Sharpeville in time for them to go to the march.

“We would have been killed, because we would have been right in the front,” she says, the last of the sentence coming out with deep-seated pride.

Mpila, too, grapples with how authorities didn’t count the bodies of children among the dead.

"Why didn't they count the bodies of the children?"

EWN was unable to find further information on this, but the claim is not new and has been queried since the official numbers came out at the time. No police officer involved in the shooting has ever been brought to book after the matter, and the whole incident was blamed on the PAC.

But her biggest gripe is with the ANC government changing the name of 21 March's commemoration day from Sharpeville Day to Human Rights Day.

“We weren’t marching for human rights then. I hate them for that.”

Reggie Poletsi still lives in Sharpeville. He’s an energetic 81-year-old who looks far younger, and comes to check in on Motsidisi-Mohane - along with Mpila - regularly.

He remembers the night before the march, when he and his two brothers went on a rampage. His brothers came home to find him so that they could go out that night as a build-up to the march the next day. They ran around the township, throwing stones at police cars. They hid behind walls and ran through neighbours’ yards, distracting police by throwing stones in the opposite direction to where they were standing. During his retelling, he comes across as a young man again, excited by the events that extended into the early hours of the morning.

On the day of the PAC-led march, Poletsi says he was standing right in front of the gate that surrounded the police station.

“I saw a white man with a black bandana in the crowd. He fired the first shot. After that, there were just bodies falling. There were bodies everywhere.”

The Sharpeville before the killings was so different.

“In Sharpeville when I grew up as a young boy, we used to carry around records and go play at someone's place with those who we attended school with, played soccer with, we used to turn the township hall into a social.”

After the massacre? People were split between the ANC and the PAC, with neighbours seeing each other as opposition. There was an unsettling silence and a strangeness between neighbours. And everyone was scared and in mourning.

“Not even a dog would bark,” says Motsidisi-Mohane.


Sharpeville is like a family. And true to the nature of that relationship, it has its problems too.

On entering Sharpeville on a March Saturday, EWN found a full gym routine in session in a park next to the dam. There are about 30 people, most of whom are women, taking instructions from a very fit coach.

Some children have come with their parents and are playing on a broken wall near an abandoned building in the park.

Others have come just before lunchtime to play together, a few with their bicycles. But at some point, all the children are running.

Goitsimang Mkwe is a 25-year-old Sharpeville resident, and part of the group. She’s self-employed as a makeup and hair artist. She does house calls for people, and is usually busy during matric dance season between March and May.

To her, Sharpeville's fewer than 40 000 residents make up a tight-knit community.

“[Sharpeville] is like a family. People are always willing to help, and people recognise each other,” she says, adding that this is likely why people are sometimes scared to move out of the tiny township.

Goitsimang Mkwe (far right) with her partner (middle) and mother-in-law. Picture: Sethembiso Zulu/EWN

But she is tired of waiting for the government to notice Sharpeville.

“I want them to take us seriously. Government comes on the 21st and that’s it. They should host more events, like once a quarter. Sharpeville has very talented people, they can sing, act, do hair. They just need to be noticed.”

Lebohang Motseremedi is 25 and left Sharpeville to live in Johannesburg in 2016. She says it’s the best decision she could have made.

“In Sharpeville, information is limited. That’s why I wanted to bring this fitness day here. We got so many people to come. It’s because they don’t usually have things like this here,” she said.

While many in Sharpeville do try to leave to go to bigger cities in search of jobs, a sense of love for home prevails. And the Sharpeville Massacre seems to be central to it.

“Our sense of community does come from trauma. The [massacre] commemoration makes me feel something, and it must not be ignored. It also allows us who know to give back to others who don’t,” she explains. “Sharpeville’s wealth is in its people, even though they can sometimes be afraid of wealth.”

Sharpeville's Nkalimeng Leutsoa Community Library is busy outside on Saturday an hour before closing time. Maserame Motloung is the 31-year-old assistant librarian who runs it. She has two children - an eight-year-old and four-month-old, and works Monday to Friday from 8am to 5pm, and on Saturdays from 9am to midday. If she could choose any job in the world, she’d still be a librarian.

“I used to read newspapers, and then I started buying books. I wanted to always be informed.”

Vibrant and energetic, Motloung was born in Sharpeville, and has lived in Vanderbijlpark for the last two years. Her mother and siblings still reside in Sharpeville. Her passion in the library is the children’s section. She works with primary school pupils, often helping them with documents for their school projects by collecting the information for them and trying to introduce them to finding knowledge through books, even though most of the people who use the library do so for the wifi and internet connected computers. While she lives elsewhere, she thinks living in Sharpeville is a blessing.

“It’s rich with history, even though the government is not recognising it,” says Motloung.“THIS is Sharpeville. It should be like Table Mountain in Cape Town, or Robben Island.”

Motloung says the one thing she would do if she was in charge of the area was basic rubbish collection. And she isn’t the only one who sees this as a problem.

The Emfuleni municipality, in which Sharpeville falls, is in crisis and under administration. But many in the area say they see the government only once a year.

The Old Sharpeville graveyard is completely overgrown. There is grass taller than most of the tombstones, and a lone teddy bear-shaped slab of marble that marks a child’s gravesite stands out among the brown weeds.

Two women visiting a part of the site that seems to have been burnt down. They say the grass at that spot was burnt by mistake, “probably by a cigarette”.

“The other gravesite, where the Sharpeville victims are buried, they are busy cutting that grass now,” one woman says. “They come every year. But only once.”

Motloung says the same thing, and says she thinks Sharpeville should look like Orlando, Soweto, an interesting comparison for the once non-political area against the robust township of many political uprisings, 16 June 1976’s shooting of children protesting against Afrikaans as the teaching language, and consistent police terror.

But people seem to continue in Sharpeville, and don’t expect much from the government. Motshidisi-Mohane and Mpila give children R5 to take their rubbish out (which they just dump in around the corner), and they seem to have come to terms with pollution everywhere.

In the afternoon, two bridal parties drive up and down Seeiso Street - one of the two main streets of the township - hooting their greetings and letting everyone know of their auspicious day. One bride waves to her neighbours through a sunroof of her carriage.

On Sunday, preparations are under way on Vuka Street for cooking skopo for lunch after church on the bright, sunny day. People are sweeping around and cleaning the seating areas they have, and people in church clothes are making their way home.

The streets get busier as the earlier church services end. A few children skip to one of the many tuckshops that line the street to buy snacks and sweets, and hair salons seem to be constantly full of people.

A party of children walking up the street is headed towards the birthday girl’s house. Her name is Tlhalefo Mthembu. She’s carrying a blown up metallic 8-shaped balloon. It is her crown birthday. It’s a themed party, and everyone is in ballerina skirts and Minnie Mouse ears, and chatting excitedly as they make their way up the street.

Sharpeville’s Groove Lounge is famous in the Vaal. Twenty-seven-year-old 016Bangaboyz member Mandla Mtimkulu, AKA Scottish, frequents it when he’s not travelling around the country with Black Motion and other celebrities with his bandmates. He’s driven from Three Rivers to eat here.

“It’s got the best Sunday food. It’s the only place I want to come to when I’m around.”

Scottish on a Sunday at Groove Lounge. Picture: Sethembiso Zulu/EWN
Pictures: Sethembiso Zulu/EWN

It’s an easy Sunday for Sharpeville residents, going on about their lives as normal, despite many potholes in the small township, and even the growing mounds of rubbish dumped among the graves of their loved ones.


The story of Sharpeville hero Sello Sehanka

When you enter Sharpeville via the R59, after crossing a bridge over the highway, the first words you see are “minds of the past, eyes of the future” painted in big black letters over a blue wall around a building. The Echoes of Love Old Age Home houses 101 elderly people, only one of whom was a Sharpeville resident prior to moving into the home.

Echoes of Love Old Age Home was opened by Sharpeville-born and residing Sello Sehanka, who turns 71 on 5 May this year. While speaking to young and old people in Sharpeville, Sehanka’s name is well known.

Sehanka places a very high standard on his belongings and his life. His mounted big-screen TV has a barcode on the screen that couldn’t be removed because the shipping plastic still around it bars access to it. Every framed picture - of his family, himself, and certificates - is straight on the four walls that make up his pedantically neat living room containing a three-piece lounge suite and surround sound. On this Sunday, he is watching TV with the volume down while listening to the radio.

Sehanka’s old age home was borne out of the HIV and Aids crisis in 2006, which saw him selling his own home and successful grocery shop to create a hospice for desperately ill people. He is uncomfortable talking about his own life, and so introduced EWN to his sidekicks, Tsoarelo Lerata (28) and Motseng Motsamai (30). These two young men speak about Sehanka as if he is their personal divine intervention. Motsamai calls the day he eventually was able to meet Sehanka as a “godly event’.

Sehanka decided to start the hospice after taking his sister to Hillbrow. He saw a hospice there, and realised that Sharpeville needed one. And by word of mouth, he eventually helped and housed hundreds of people at his hospice. Hospitals and clinics referred people to him, and he didn’t turn any away.

After the HIV and Aids crisis eased with wider distributions of antiretrovirals and less stigmatisation around the illness, Sehanka turned the hospice into an old age home.

“More people needed a home than a place to die.”

Sehanka’s care is renowned. The majority of the people who live at the home are from other provinces, brought by younger family members who have moved to Gauteng for work from other provinces and want their elderly close by so they can visit them.

He has always been a giving person, Lerata and Motsamai explain. Since a young man, he has built schools, a home for a disabled person with his own hands, tutored young people with their school work, and provided school shoes for children who needed them. He is also a strong proponent of supporting local businesses instead of doing bulk shopping in Johannesburg like others in Sharpeville do. And for all his efforts, he was able to once again buy a house for himself two years ago.

Lerata was orphaned in 2010 after moving to South Africa with his mother from Lesotho in 2008. He describes Sehanka as his own father. Lerata and his business partner Motsamai help out in the marketing division of Echoes of Love, doing graphics, visuals and designs for different needs of the home.

Sehanka is Lerata and Motsamai's moral compass - they go to church together, they learnt how to eat together as brothers through Sehanka’s leadership, and work together to further their business, which involves shooting video and photos for events. They get most of their business from graduations, weddings and matric dances.

But according to Sehanka, not all of the youth are doing well, citing a big drug problem in the area. He differs from some of the younger people in the area who say there is a strong sense of community.

“She’s right when she says everyone knows each other,” he says when EWN asks him about Mkwe’s comments. “But the care is not there.” He knows because he’s been in Sharpeville for 71 years, and has watched it become what it is today.

“If it was true, there wouldn’t be so many rapes and murders at young ages.”

When we ask him if he thinks these are ramifications of the violence of the apartheid regime that Sharpeville endured, he cuts us off from finishing the question with a firm “yes”.

“These are the direct results of the effects of racism.”

Struggles in the Emfuleni municipality and a lack of 21 March commemorations this year due to the COVID-19 outbreak might make reminding other South Africans that Sharpeville has living and breathing residents today a bit more difficult than usual. But in the meantime, Sharpeville’s people - such as Sehanka, Lerata, Motsamai and other residents - will continue to keep their eyes firmly focused on their future.


Sethembiso Zulu Deshnee Subramany