Celebrating Human Rights Day and recollecting the tragic events of Sharpeville, is a necessary reminder of the value of reflecting on our past.

For many South Africans, public holidays are an opportunity to sleep late, possibly have a braai and do something fun. The thought of remembering the reason for the day, can be met with indifference and no real desire to look back at an event that conjures up long forgotten lessons in History class at school. Besides, it’s history right? Why bring up the past?

But the past has a gift to offer to those who are willing to spend some time examining it.

Robert Penn Warren exclaims, “History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.”

There is a value in remembering.


Remembering can feel like opening a door to a room you’ve purposely closed and choosing to walk through the feelings, the thoughts, the memories, the images, the loss, the pain, and the hurt all again. We often just don’t have the emotional energy for such a walk.

It can be painful to remember the massacre which occurred on 21 March 1960, at the police station in the South African township of Sharpeville. It can be painful to remember that 69 people were killed, including 8 women and 10 children, and 180 injured, including 31 women and 19 children.

It can be painful to remember that the root cause of this tragedy was based on skin colour. And when we remember that, suddenly an event which occurred over fifty years ago feels like yesterday, when we made a judgement on another based on the colour of their skin. Or the memory of yesterday when you were unfairly treated, simply because of your race.

Remembering can be painful but pain left unattended is toxic. It slowly eats away at trust and intrenches false beliefs, birthing stereotypes and feeding the mind of the cynic.


Ever long for ‘how it used to be?’ Remember the ‘good old days!’ Tripping down memory lane can be unhelpful when it’s in reference to ‘better days’. When we choose to dwell on the ‘former glory’ of the past. Always looking back, always wishing to return. Wishing to be younger again, to use your time better, to have prepared more etc.

Such remembering will rob us of the present and only keep us in fear of the future.

How is it possible for some South Africans to long for the former days in our country when the majority of the population had to carry passes, so that their movements could be monitored? Dwelling on a past that benefited a minority is more than unhelpful, it almost seems nonsensical. We remember the past not to dwell, but to inform our present and guide our future.


Google maps allows you to pin a location. When we reflect on the past we can choose to ‘pin’ the event, the period, the season and then see how far we have come. The distance travelled can offer a signpost to us, saying ‘Look how much you changed.” “Wow, we have grown!” “Yes, things are better now!” They can also be a, “We still have a lot to learn.” “The work is not finished yet!”

For example, “What have we learnt about protest action?”

As a nation, it’s clear the work is just beginning and it’s time to roll up our sleeves and participate. Participate in the debates. In the bridge-building. In the disarming of stereotypes. To participate in blending the rainbow colours, reaching across class and race.


History repeats itself. Too often, sadly. As we remember, we must choose to learn from it.

We learn that the problem rests within all of us. Within our fallen humanity. Not just with ‘them’ or ‘those people.’

The Shepherd-Leader Moses thought it prudent to speak to the entire Israelite nation on the banks of the Jordan River before they entered the promised land of Canaan, and God thought it significant enough to record most of it in the book of Deuteronomy for us to read. There is a constant refrain in Moses’ speech to, ‘Remember.’

To remember that God is faithful and true to his promise.
To remember that we are sinful and in need of forgiveness.
To remember that God is gracious and loving.
To remember that we cannot go it alone.

History offers the learning that we are in need of a Saviour and cannot fix what is broke. We cannot fix our broken selves, our broken communities or our broken country.


Teenagers can be all about the now, the instant, the next thing. Please no dates and names!

We have a responsibility though as elders, as adults, as those who have lived through some of the history, to pass on the value of remembering, even though it can be painful, even sometimes unhelpful.

The past offers unlimited learning to those who are brave and courageous enough to remember.