The Langa Massacre: SA’s forgotten apartheid-era atrocity

When South Africans reflect on Human Rights Day, they likely think of the events that took place in Sharpeville in 1960. But many don’t know of another massacre that occurred exactly 25 years later.

Mourners carrying coffins of those who were killed by the South African police at Langa township in Uitenhage on 21 March 1985. Picture: UN Photo

CAPE TOWN - The nation commemorated Human Rights Day on 21 March, a day that marks one of the worst massacres of the apartheid era - the Sharpeville massacre.

Thousands of Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) protesters marched to a police station in the Vaal area to protest pass laws. The apartheid police opened fire on them, counting 69 people killed. The PAC called on its organised members around the country to march. In Langa later that day, a group led by Philip Kgosana was shot at, leaving 20 people dead.

But many don't know that the day is also the anniversary of another apartheid-era atrocity committed in the same area on the same day, but 25 years later.

"Suddenly they shot at our people with rubber bullets and later they used live ammunition. People were just lying over the road, some seeking refuge at the stadium, some ran into the dam that is still there.”

The atrocity Nicholas Malgas remembers is not the Sharpeville massacre, but rather one that happened 25 years ago at Langa in Uitenhage.

Malgas was 18 years old in matric at the time and was already politically active, heeding the call of then African National Congress president Oliver Tambo.

Malgas was part of the group of mourners heading to a funeral of one of six people shot by police on 17 March 1985. He survived that day when the apartheid-era police opened fire on him and his fellow marchers. But 35 of his fellow marchers were not so lucky.

Mourners displaying a banner at a funeral ceremony for the 35 people who were killed by the South African police at Langa township in Uitenhage on 21 March 1985. Picture: UN Photo

Malgas is now a man in his early 50s but that day is still crystal clear in his memory and so is his sense that the memory of those who fell have been betrayed post democracy.

He's the chairperson of the Langa Massacre Foundation that aims to keep the memory of this oft-forgotten atrocity alive and to advocate for survivors and the families of those who died.

He said that aspect had not been easy.

“I must say that absolutely nothing has been done for the 1985 massacre - the victims and the beneficiaries and the survivors. There’s no liberation that has been done for those families. Till to date, we have a situation where the families are still in the worst situation.”

Malgas said over the last three decades, victims of the Langa massacre had pleaded with government to help them, whether it was to assist them with housing, employment or medical care. But they were still waiting.

“We have also asked them to build us a resort where these old people and women can go and do handwork beading so that they can generate money for themselves without depending on the government.”

Malgas said their pleas had fallen on deaf ears, leaving him and his fellow survivors feeling betrayed and unable to move on.

But despite the considerable loss of life in Langa, it is less well remembered than the events in Sharpeville. Why is that?

“Massacres are most likely to be remembered the bigger the number of people shot,” retired political analyst from UWC, Keith Gottschalk, told Eyewitness News.

“Secondly, if there happens to be a journalist or a cameraman/operator already on the scene when the shootings starts, it’s going to get a lot of publicity. While if it’s in a country where journalists, independent journalists, are suppressed, it could take a lot longer to reach the newspapers.”

Gottschalk explained that even if journalists were present to witness and record such events, the death of so-called ordinary people would often get less traction than prominent citizens.

“If any of the people killed are celebrities or leaders from a community organisation, that is going to get more headlines and if, of course, there is a bigger event or a bigger massacre somewhere else it may tend to fall off the page.”

Gottschalk said that the act of remembering had to happen across society.

“I think it’s important that first of all, museum exhibits incorporate these events and we revisit and revise the contents of museums. Secondly, school teachings and schoolbooks must detail such happenings.”

Dr Marjorie Jobson of the Khulumani Support Group said without a concerted effort to examine and remember the atrocities of the past, communities would never be able to truly move forward.

“If one doesn’t deal with things, then you get these cycles of just reclaiming this kind of brutality and violence.

“One of the things we’ve learnt from our years of work is that the very best thing to offer to people who have been exceptionally attacked and shot and killed is to acknowledge and recognise what they have been through.

“And that is why the recognition and the acknowledgement and commemoration is so critical to people because that is actually the starting point of not brushing anything under the carpet.”

She said far too many times victims of trauma had been silenced.

“Victims in this country have been silenced. People will always say to them why can’t you just move on.”

Jobson said as the nation reflected on Human Rights Day, they should make room in their hearts and minds to remember all the massacres in the past, in order for us to heal as a nation.

Eyewitness News approached Eastern Cape authorities last week to comment on the situation and to ask what, if anything, could be done to assist the survivors of the massacre.

They have yet to respond.

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