South Africa marks anniversary of Sharpeville massacre

South Africans gathered in Sharpeville today, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the massacre that brought the country's black rights movement to the world's attention.

Survivors and families of victims met early today at the Roman Catholic Church, a building with a strong history of struggle against the racist apartheid regime, to remember the events of March 21, 1960. At the cemetery, over a hundred people assembled to lay wreaths on gravestones of those killed and pay their respects. South Africa's Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe is expected to address large crowds at Sharpeville stadium later today.

A half century ago, police officers massacred 69 black South Africans in the township of Sharpeville, where protesters had burned the passbooks that the white-led apartheid government required them to carry at all times.

But survivors of the massacre are tired of telling their stories: They are wondering when the change they thought they were fighting for 50 years ago will come to Sharpeville.

Residents in recent weeks have set fire to tyres in the streets to protest the lack of basic city services such as electricity and running water.

"Our lives started changing with Nelson Mandela's release, but people are still financially struggling and finance is still in white people's hands," said Abram Mofokeng, who was just 21 when officers opened fire on the protesters, shooting demonstrators including women and children as they ran away. Mofokeng still bears the scar where a bullet entered his back.

Local residents say that today's 50th anniversary of the massacre will be calm, despite concerns that commemoration activities could be interrupted with demonstrations.

The massacre, a turning point in the anti-apartheid struggle, drew world condemnation of the white-led government's ruthless treatment of South Africa's disenfranchised black majority and led the apartheid government to outlaw the African National Congress party. The ANC has governed South Africa since the country's first all-race elections in 1994.

But 16 years after the end of apartheid, many black South Africans feel that they have not benefited from the economic growth that has made many government and ANC officials rich. President Jacob Zuma, a popular figure among the poor, has promised to speed up delivery of houses, clinics, schools, running water and electricity as well as create jobs. But he also has acknowledged the difficulties of doing so amid the global recession.

In Sharpeville, the cemetery today is filled with rows of mismatched tombstones covered with unkempt grass and faded artificial flowers. A line of neat concrete slabs with black stone headstones marks the resting place of the massacre's victims.

The old police station where protesters gathered 50 years ago has become a community centre. Survivors of the massacre met here, along with other victims of apartheid, to share their stories and try to help each other heal. The counselling group has now moved to a nearby church, as the building is being renovated into a museum, part of Sharpeville's growing "Human Rights Precinct" with its memorial garden and shiny new exhibition centre.

The engraved stone tablets on a wall at the Garden of Remembrance are cracked in places. Some residents believe it is an attempt to draw attention to the issues that remain decades later.

"People's lives haven't changed. There are so many things we don't have ... a community hall, a sports ground ... People are unhappy," said Phillip Makhale, caretaker of the memorial site.

Busisiswe Mbuli, 18, lives with her mother and four siblings in an informal settlement on the edge of Sharpeville.

"There are no school buses in Sharpeville," she said. "We have to walk very far to go to school, and it is difficult for the little ones."

The floor of the family shack she lives in is bare earth and corrugated iron walls reveal large holes where rain and bitter winter winds can come through.

"We cannot live in these shelters. They are right next to the tar road, and the gas heating inside the shelter is not safe. And then there are the toilets. They are the worst," she said.

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