The Sharpeville Massacre
The Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 which is commemorated on the 21st of March in South Africa became a catalyst in the fight against the apartheid regime.
A week after the then president general of the ANC, Chief Albert Luthuli announced that 1960 was going to be the “Year of The Pass” through a series of mass actions, the ANC planned to launch an anti-pass campaign which was set to be nationwide on the 31st of March – which is also the anniversary of the1919 anti-pass campaign. The Pan Africanist Congress held its first conference in Johannesburg it was at this conference where the PAC announced the launch of its own anti-pass campaign.
“No one outside the PAC was sure how seriously to take the PAC anti-pass campaign. The ANC leaders derided it. The white press largely ignored the PAC campaign,” Journalist Patrick Duncan wrote. The ANC went as far as trying to discredit the campaign as “sensational” and without “prospect of success”, in an editorial for the Sunday Times Newspaper on March 20, 1960.
In the early 1960s both the PAC and ANC embarked on a feverish drive to prepare their members and black communities for the proposed nationwide campaigns. The PAC called on its supporters to leave their passes in their homes on the appointed date and gather at police stations all-over the country, availing themselves for the arrest. The slogan used for their campaign was
NO BAIL! NO DEFENCE! NO FINE!” The PAC argued that if thousands of people were arrested, then the jail cells would be full, and the economy of the country would come to a standstill.
In as much as the protests were anticipated, no one could have predicted the consequences and repercussions this would have for South African and world politics. An article published in the 19 March 1960 issue of Contact, the Liberal Part Newspaper, the article was titled “PAC Campaign will be test” this described the build up to the campaign:
“The Pan Africanist Congress will shorty launch a nationwide campaign for the total abolition of the pass laws. The exact date on which the campaign will start is still unknown. The decision lies with the PAC president Mr R. M. Sobukwe. But members say that the campaign will begin shortly – within a matter of weeks.”
The president of the PAC, Mr Robert Sobukwe announced that the PAC was going to embark on an anti-pass campaign on Monday the 21st at a press conference held on Saturday the 19th of March 1960. In accordance with his ‘Testimony about the Launch of the Campaign’ Sobukwe declared:
“The campaign was made known on the 18th of March. Circulars were printed and distributed to the members of the organisation and on the 21st of March, on Monday, in obedience to a resolution they had taken, the members of the Pan Africanist Congress surrendered themselves at various police stations around the country”.
At the conference Sobukwe emphasized the campaign should be conducted in a spirit of absolute non-violence and that the PAC viewed it as the first step in the Natives’ bid for total independence and freedom by 1963. (Cape Times, 1960). Sobukwe subsequently announced:
“African people have entrusted their whole future to us. And we have sworn that we are leading them, not to death, but to life abundant. My instructions, therefore, are that our people must be taught how and continuously that in this campaign we are going to observe absolute non-violence.”
The Day of The Massacre
On the 21st of March 1960, in the morning members of the PAC walked around Sharpeville waking others up and urging them to partake in the demonstration. Other members of the PAC tried to stop bus drivers from going on duty which resulted in a lack of transport for Sharpeville residents who worked in Vereeniging. Several people set out for work on bicycles or on foot, but some were intimidated by members of the PAC who threatened to burn their passes or “lay hands on them” if they opted to go to work (Rev Ambrose Reeves, 1966). However, many joined the procession willingly so.
Earlier on in the morning of the 21st the local leaders of the PAC first gathered in a field not far from the Sharpeville police station, when a sizeable crowd of people had joined them, they proceeded to the police station – chanting freedom songs and calling out campaign slogans such as “Izwe Lethu”; “Awaphele amapassi”; “Sobukwe Sikhokhele”; “Forward to Independence, Tomorrow the United States of Africa.”
When the protesters got to the Sharpeville police station a heavy continent of policemen were lined up outside, many on top of British-made Saracen armoured cars. This did not stop Mr Tsolo and other members of the PAC Branch Executive from their mission they continued to advance – in conformity with the novel motto of the PAC “Leaders in Front” – and asked the white policeman in command to let them in so they could surrender themselves for refusing to carry their passes. The police commander initially refused but at a later stage at approximately 11hoo, they were granted access; the chanting of freedom songs continued d the slogans were repeated this time the volume being much louder.
Journalists after receiving word that the campaign was a runaway success rushed there from other areas and confirmed, “that for all their singing and shouting the crowd’s mood was more festive than belligerent” (David M. Sibeko, 1976).
By noon approximately 300 armed policemen faced a crowd of approximately 5000 people. At 13h15 a minor scuffle began near the entrance of the police station. A policeman was accidentally pushed over, and the crowd began to move forward to get a better view of what was happening.
According to the police, protesters began to stone them and, without warning, one of the policemen on the top of an armoured car went into panic mode and opened fire. His colleagues followed suit and opened fire. This lasted for approximately 2 minutes, leaving 69 people lifeless and, according to the official inquest,180 people were seriously wounded.
The policemen were apparently jittery after a recent event in Durban which resulted in the shooting of 9 policemen.
Unlike in other areas such as the East Rand where police used baton when charging at resisters, the police at Sharpeville used live ammunition. Eyewitness accounts attest to the fact that la large number of people were not given a warning to disperse, these accounts and evidence later led to an official inquiry which attested to the fact that a large number of people were shot in the back as they were fleeing from the scene.
The presence of armoured vehicles and air force fighter jets overhead also pointe to unnecessary provocation, especially as the crowd was unarmed and determined to stage a non-violent protest.
To add onto this an account from Humphrey Tyler, the then assistant editor at the Drum Magazine:
‘The police have claimed they were in desperate danger because the crowd was stoning them. Yet only three policemen were reported to have been hit by stones – and more than 200 Africans were shot down. The police also have said that the crowd was armed with ‘ferocious weapons’, which littered to compound after they fled’.
“I saw no weapons, although I looked very carefully, and afterwards studied the photographs of the death scene. While I was there, I saw only shoes, hats and a few bicycles left among the bodies. The crowd gave me no reason the feel scared, though I moved among them without any distinguishing mark to protect me, quite obvious with my white skin. I think the police were scared though, and I think the crowd knew it.”
Within hours of the killing at Sharpeville the news was flashed around the world.
On the morning of 21 March Robert Sobukwe left his house in Mofolo, a suburb of Soweto, an began walking to the Orlando police station. Along the way small groups of people joined him. In Tshwane, a group of six people presented themselves at the Hercules police station. In addition, other small groups of PAC activists presented themselves at police stations in eThekwini and East London. However, the police simply took down their names and made no arrests.
When the news of the massacre reached Cape Town a group of protesters between 1000 – 5000 gathered at the Langa flats bus terminus around 17hoo on the 21st of March 1960. This was in direct defiance of the government’s countrywide ban on public meetings and gatherings of more than ten persons. Within 3 minutes the police ordered the crowd to disperse. When protesters reconvened in defiance, the police charged at them with batons, teargas, and guns. Three people were killed, and 26 others were injured. The township of Langa was gripped by tension and the turmoil that ensued in the violence that was followed by 26 people being wounded.
This is why we commemorate the 21st of March, not because its human rights day and that allows for a nationwide braai. The idea of excluding toe PAC from this day is unruly and disappointing. I hope that one day the 21st of March is commemorated accordingly and that the PAC be given the platform to share and continue to educate us on historical events such as these. Black child yours is to refuse the whitewashed history that is shoved down your throats!
Time Magazine, (1960), The Sharpeville Massacre, Time Magazine online, 4 April Apartheid Legislation in South Africa [online], Available at: https://www.africanhistory.about.com
[Accessed: 20 March 2021]
History of the PAC [online], available at: https://www.sahistory.org.za
[accessed: 20 March 2021] Maaba, BV, The PAC’s war against the state 1960-1963
Plaaitjie, T. (1993) Focus: ‘Sharpeville Heroes Neglected’, The Sowetan, 20 March. Reverend Ambrose Reeves (1966), The Sharpeville Massacre- watershed in South Africa. Article available from SAHO Archive.