Internationally Human Rights Day is celebrated on the 10th December each year in honour of the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. But in South Africa we commemorate Human Rights Day on the 21st March, in acknowledgment of the events that took place on this day in 1960, when the police opened fire on protestors, killing 69 people, and seriously wounding a further 180. It’s not known with any certainty why the police took such drastic actions against the participants of the anti-pass march that had been organised by the PAC, who were supposedly relatively peaceful prior to the shootings, but there is a theory that events that had happened in Durban a number of weeks prior to the Sharpeville Massacre were what had put the police so on edge.
Cato Manor was a hotbed of political activity in the late 1950s, with the city implementing forced removals and coming down hard on illegal brewers of beer. The Durban System saw the city producing its own liquor to sell in municipal beer halls, which resulted in serious opposition from the women of Cato Manor, many of whom were reliant on the income they made from their beer making activities to support their families.
On the 23rd January 1960, a group of policemen were engaged in “routine crime prevention activities” (as per the SAPS Museum file 667-29/2/1B- 6/14-1) when they were attacked by an aggressive group of residents. They left the area, and believing it to be an isolated incident, and clearly unaware of how high tensions were running in Cato Manor, they returned the next day to continue their search for illegal brewers.
A total of twenty-four policemen were inspecting the area when they had an altercation with a woman from one of the shebeen’s who claimed that a constable had stood on her foot. Her shouts drew the attention of locals who charged the policemen. The police were forced to take refuge in two adjacent huts, but the angry crowd, which reportedly numbered close to 1000, broke down the doors, killing nine officers, including five black police officers who were stoned and hacked to death. This is believed to be the highest number of police killed in a single incident, and is one of the possible reasons put forward for the heinous actions of the South African police some two months later.
In response to the events that took place on Sunday 24th January 1960, thirty-one residents of Cato Manor were arrested and charged with the murders of the policemen. Ten of the accused were sentenced to death, with the other twenty-one men serving prison sentences of between one and fifteen years.
The story of Cato Manor is the subject of a permanent photographic exhibition housed at the KwaMuhle Museum, which forms part of the Durban Liberation Heritage Route.