top of page

International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is an annual observation implemented by the United Nations in 1966. The events of the Sharpeville massacre unfolded on this date in 1960. Sharpeville was a Black township in South Africa. Black South Africans were required to carry passes - a document instrumental to the functionality of apartheid. The population was classed between Whites, Black African, 'Indian' (Asian) and 'Coloured' (persons of mixed European and African or Asian ancestry). The plan was for protestors to march to the local police station without their passes and ask to be arrested, in an act of civil disobedience.

Described as a violent turning point in the history of South African apartheid, the protest was a demonstration against the anti-Black laws. 7,000 Black protesters marched to the police station, singing freedom songs and shouting “down with the passes!” On arrival the South African Police fired upon the crowd. There were 249 victims in total, including 29 children. 69 people were killed and 180 were injured. A subsequent report revealed that more than 700 bullets were discharged, all by police.

The events left the Black South African population devastated, compounding their already intense experiences of discrimination, repression and a lack of power regarding sociopolitical and economic rights by the nation’s minority white population during the 20th century.

Following the event, Nelson Mandela and others members of the African National Congress (ANC) burned their passes in solidarity. On March 30th, around 30,000 demonstrators marched to Cape Town to protest the shootings. Nelson Mandela reportedly never carried a pass again.

On an international scale, the response to the Sharpeville massacre was quick and united, with many countries condemning the tragedy.

On April 1st, 1960, in its initial response to the situation in South Africa, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 134, condemning the policies and actions of the South African government following the tragic killing of the 69 peaceful African protesters in Sharpeville. The Council urged the government to end its apartheid policies and practices of racial discrimination. A month later, the UN General Assembly declared that the apartheid was a violation of the UN Charter. This marks the first time the UN had discussed apartheid.

In 1966, UNESCO marked the 21st of March as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in memory of the massacre. Despite there being no scientific basis for race, which is often defined as a social construct to divide and categorise people, its impact continues to cast a shadow on our world.

Unfortunately, the Sharpeville Massacre is one of countless examples in which citizens were discriminated against because of their racial identity, thereby risking their livelihoods for racial equality, freedom and justice. The Sharpeville Massacre echoes various sentiments of the fight against racial discrimination.

Discriminated populations of an ethnic minority are often degraded, devalued and dehumanised by their oppressors due to the colour of their skin and turn to protesting to advance a social movement. Often, these protests are high-risk in terms of trauma, injury and death. Protests symbolise the marginalised group's struggle for freedom, with aspirations for change, empowerment, and progress.

These courageous demonstrators initiate generational shifts, capturing global attention, and their efforts result in the legal recognition of race protection as a fundamental characteristic, inspiring us all toward a better world. However, it is not a smooth sailing journey – the legacy of historical and unequal racial practices continues.

The Sharpeville massacre serves as a poignant reminder of the devastating consequences of racial discrimination, not just within South Africa but on a global scale. The events that unfolded on that fateful day reverberated across the world, sparking outrage and condemnation from nations far and wide.

The consequences of apartheid continue to challenge the country. Post-apartheid South Africa is described as a captivating case study, of how economic inequality can be reproduced and preserved within a country’s social fabric based on race, and the trickle-down effect of that legacy. Whilst there has been significant progression on the racial dynamics in South Africa and globally, the pulse of discrimination based on race continues. For example, between 1994 and 2004, the ANC funded nearly 2 million new homes for Black South Africans. This is a step in the right direction, especially compared to the 1913 Land Act, a cornerstone of apartheid that restricted the rights of Black South Africans’ ownership of land. However, the housing was developed within the existing townships, reinforcing the segregated geographies. Actions like this perpetuate cycles of segregation, suffering and marginalisation.

Another example of the cumulative impact of South African apartheid is the disparity in education funding between Black South Africans and their white counterparts.  In 1994, when South Africa gained its first democratically elected government, spending on a white learner was four times that of an African learner. The racial composition of the system: 80% African, 9% Coloured, 2% Indian and 9% white - was offset by under-investment and large class sizes in non-white schools.

As of 2023, the unemployment rate among Black South Africans was 36.8% compared to 7.4% for white South Africans. Disparities in education funding between Black and white South Africans, stemming from historical apartheid policies, contribute to differences in employment outcomes. Black South Africans experience higher unemployment rates due to limited access to quality education and subsequent employment opportunities compared to their white counterparts. Addressing these disparities is vital for promoting equality of opportunity and reducing unemployment among marginalised groups.

Racial Discrimination and COVID-19

Global travel, urbanisation, climate change, increased human-animal contact and health worker shortages – these are various examples as to why pandemics and epidemics occur. According to research published by the American National Library of Medicine, it is believed that the COVID-19 pandemic was the first time a certain racial/ethnic group or nationality was blamed for a pandemic.

Reports of discrimination and violence towards Asian Americans increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to Asian populations feeling vulnerable to the point that they changed their daily routines, out of fear of being threatened or attacked. In the UK, Jonathan Mok - a 16-year old Singaporean student - was attacked in Oxford Street in a racially aggravated assault during the pandemic. Reports of hate crimes and xenophobic attacks underscore the enduring legacy of racial bias and prejudice, even in the face of a global crisis.

Historically, the United States is criticised for its history of scapegoating Asian-Americans through the enforcement of laws and national policies. This is similar to the United Kingdom. According to Dr Anne Witchard, an expert on British-Chinese cultural relations from the University of Westminster, anti-Asian discrimination in the UK started as early as the turn of the 20th century, when Chinese immigrants started settling in the Limehouse area of London. Racist sentiments led to state-sanctioned anti-Asian racism, with Chinese seamen being forcefully deported. These sentiments grew across Britain and remained the norms for decades – and this has still not been addressed by British authorities.

Xenophobic attitudes and scapegoating are components of racism which reinforce racial social structures, and this type of racism which encourages unmerited blame can lead to devastating consequences.

Our Fight Here in the UK

The discussion of racial discrimination is nuanced, intersectional, complex and requires a deep-rooted understanding of a society’s fabric. It requires an understanding of the commercialisation and exploitation of human beings. The political and economic control of a country includes historical practices that dehumanised ethnic groups and scientifically inaccurate theories based on racist beliefs and practices. These historical practices have led to institutionalised racism which reinforces inequality through political, economic and legal structures affecting Black, Asian and other minoritised ethnic groups in education, health, employment, civil rights and criminal justice.

Stephen Lawrence, an innocent young Black man aspiring to be an architect, was brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack by racist white youths in South-East London in 1993. During this period, the investigation was poorly handled, and it took nearly 20 years for two of the 18-year-old’s killers to be brought to justice. The murder of Stephen Lawrence has been described as “one of the most important moments in the modern history of criminal justice in Britain”. In 1998, a public enquiry by Sir William Macpherson examined the original Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) investigation and concluded that the investigation was incompetent and that the force was institutionally racist.

In 1999, Benjamin Zephaniah wrote a poem titled ‘What Stephen Lawrence has taught us’. In this poem, Zephaniah states, ‘and now we know that the road to liberty is as long as the road from slavery’ and ‘the death of Stephen Lawrence has taught us to love each other and never take the tedious task of waiting for a bus for granted’.  

Systemic racism remains deeply ingrained in institutions and structures worldwide, manifesting in disparities in education, healthcare, employment, and criminal justice. The struggle for racial justice is not confined to a single moment or event; it is an ongoing battle that demands vigilance, solidarity, and unwavering commitment.

As we commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, let us not only reflect on the past but also reaffirm our commitment to confront and dismantle the systems of oppression that perpetuate racial inequality. We would like to display a profound gratitude to all those who have championed, protested and contributed to racial equity. As an organisation, we remain inspired by their resilience, strength and wisdom. It is only through collective action and empathy that we can hope to build a more just and equitable world for future generations.

Mental Health and Racism

Racial discrimination is a difficult conversation which can affect mental health. If you are seeking support, please see Mind’s resources on racism and mental health.

What V4CE is Doing

Voice4Change England is an anti-racist organisation and a national advocate for the Black and Minoritised Ethnic (BME) voluntary and community sector. The heart of our organisation is based on racial equity. We will continue to support the Windrush Generation with their compensation, challenge racism in civil society with Home Truths 2 in collaboration with ACEVO, and advocate for BME communities facing disproportionate effects in health, housing, education, employment, the criminal justice system and beyond.

References and Sources


bottom of page