JOHANNESBURG (AP) – South Africa’s president led a stirring national commemoration of the day 52 years ago when apartheid-era police gunned down 69 blacks protesting segregation in the township of Sharpeville, but acknowledged Wednesday that strong inequalities persist.
President Jacob Zuma said South Africa honored its annual Human Rights Day by remembering “these patriots and thousands of others who fell” in the struggle that led to the first all-race elections that swept Nelson Mandela to power in 1994. The newly democratic nation then adopted a Bill of Rights and one of the world’s freest constitutions.
He also acknowledged on Wednesday that the government had failed to provide basic rights like housing, sanitation, clean water and health care across the board.
“We have done well indeed in a short space of time. However, we are aware that as more people gain access to these socio-economic rights, many more still live in hardship,” Zuma said.
He spoke in Johannesburg’s Soweto township. A day earlier, residents of Sharpeville held violent protests over the choice of Soweto, a sprawling area of malls, a large university campus and a World Cup stadium that has far outstripped growth in their still-poor town, once a dormitory settlement for workers in industrial areas 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Johannesburg.
Organizers of nationwide commemorations say though Sharpeville signifies a defining moment in early resistance to white rule, human rights concerns are now in a broader national focus.
Pregs Govender, deputy chair of the South African Human Rights Commission, said apartheid police were “blinded by fear and hatred when they opened fire on protesters in Sharpeville” on March 21, 1960.
In modern South Africa, poverty remains the greatest rights violation, she said.
“Sixteen million people, mostly women, in rural areas have no access to sanitation,” Govender said.
On Tuesday, police estimated a crowd of 2,000 protesters marched through Sharpeville to demand the symbolic commemoration be held there.
Some groups broke away and barricaded streets with rocks, wood and garbage and set garbage and tires alight, police and witnesses said.
Sharpeville’s Human Rights Precinct, a shrine in stone to the dead and at least 180 wounded that day, was daubed with graffiti and slogans.
“You have failed Sharpeville again,” said one spray-painted message directed to the provincial premier of Zuma’s ruling African National Congress party.
“Why Soweto?” said another.
Police fired rubber bullets to disperse stone-throwing residents. The South African Press Association also reported later on gun shots being heard in the town overnight.
In a statement Wednesday, former Zuma ally Mosioua Lekota called on his countrymen to see human rights as “for all South Africans and not for a particular area.”
In recent weeks, disturbances have flared across South Africa protesting the lack of utilities and services for poor communities.
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