Fifty-four years ago, 69 non-violent South African protesters demonstrating against racial segregation and disenfranchisement were shot dead by South African police in the Sharpeville Massacre. The date — March 21, 1960, was a turning point for South Africa. As South Africa celebrates 20 years of democracy, here are 10 things to remember about the Sharpeville Massacre.
Sources: csstudents.stanford.edu, huffingtonpost.com, sahistory.org.za, overcomingapartheid.msu.edu, africanhistory.about.com, bbc.co.uk, guardian.co.uk
The Dutch East India Company, finding riches on the land, colonized and enslaved the black indigenous populations, driving them off of their land or eliminating entire tribes to build settlements. The “Scramble for Africa” of the 18th and 19th centuries saw South Africa split into four colonies: two for the British and two for the Dutch Boers or Afrikaners. Disenchanted with Britain’s abolition of slavery, the Boers instigated the two Boer Wars of the late 1800s, resulting in their losing territorial sovereignty. In 1910, the British unified the four colonies into the Union of South Africa. More than 90 percent of the country was reserved for white settlement, and blacks received virtually no land and no rights. In 1948, the Afrikaner National Party won the majority elections, and the word apartheid (apartness) became law — a legal, institutional separation of races.
From 1948 until Sharpeville in 1960, 317 laws were put into motion that determined how the black population moved, lived, worked, socialized, and studied. Besides differentiating whites and blacks, there were “colored” or mixed races, and the Asian category — mostly immigrants from India and Pakistan — who were not as dispossessed as blacks, but still faced harsh discrimination. Laws such as the 1949 Prohibition of Marriage Act banned blacks and whites from marrying. In 1951, the Bantu Authorities Act created 10 defined areas of land called bantustans or homelands, and blacks were deported to designated areas based on their different mother tongues, irrespective of their current geographical or social status. Each homeland had a chief and its own governing bodies, and 9 million South Africans were essentially stripped of their citizenship.
If non-European South Africans desired to pass through their bantustans back into the area of their birth from which they’d been expelled, they were required to show mandatory passes or ID cards. These “reference books” chronicled their work history and where they were allowed to live. Those permitted to live outside of their bantustans carried special exemptions, or were employed in European South African territories. Any white South African could demand to see pass documents from a black person. Ramifications were harsh. Fines and jail time were a certainty for violators. While carrying passes had been compulsory for men for over a century, women were forced as well to carry passes after 1952. Passive resistance to this flared up, including the 20,000-strong Women’s Anti-Pass March on Prime Minister J.G. Strijdom’s offices on Aug. 9, 1956.
Pacified, non-violent resistance was championed by the African National Congress (ANC), the major representation group for black South Africans which worked within the Apartheid laws. Demonstrations like the 1952 Defiance Campaign saw many non-Europeans led by, amongst others. Nelson Mandela, engaging in civil disobedience: burning their pass books, sitting in Europeans-only sections, and marching in solidarity, only to be arrested and jailed repeatedly. However, a more militant nationalist “Africanist” faction, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) was made in 1959, sprung from a displeased attitude toward the ANC’s Freedom Charter and the Congress of the People campaign, which unified most of South Africa’s liberation forces of all races; the PAC did not want to campaign so moderately, and wanted self-determination for and by blacks only. It often found itself butting heads with the ANC.
In 1959, ANC President General Chief Albert Luthuli proclaimed that 1960 would be the “Year of the Pass,” and established March 31, 1960 as the launching of the anti-pass campaign–the day all black South Africans would discard their pass books. The PAC decided to jump ahead; President Robert Sobukwe declared an unknown but imminent date for their own anti-pass campaign. On March 18, 196o, the date for PAC’s countrywide march was finalized: March 21, 1960. Leaflets and flyers were printed out. The aim was: leave your books behind, march in numbers, fill up the jails, halt the economy, and despite PAC’s “arm yourselves” views, to engage in non-violence during the march.
Located about 30 miles south of Johannesburg, Sharpeville was a Bantu township near the city of Vereeniging, and the only place where blacks were allowed to live in this fertile section of the country. Since 1950, Top Location had been the sole designated blacks-only area, but the general sentiment was that blacks were too close to white Vereeniging city. The transfer of tens of thousands of blacks from Top Location to Sharpeville led to compacted, squalid living conditions. Many black citizens of Sharpeville had to break laws by sneaking in and out of Vereeniging for their jobs. On March 21, 1960, the Pan Africanist Congress, or PAC descended on Sharpeville, rousing people from their sleep, condensing them (some say with intimidation) into a large group, singing “izwe lethu” (our land) and “awaphele amapasti” (down with passes).
A group of between 5,000 and 7,000 protesters walked toward the Sharpeville police station. About 10 miles away in Evaton, nearly 20,000 were demonstrating. The police in Sharpeville were waiting at the station, and it is alleged that they did not arrest protesters. Some police reported that stones were thrown. The first shot was fired at 1:15 p.m. The PAC had rushed most of the demonstrators away by that time, and only 300-or-so remained. About 50 to 75 police followed suit, shooting directly into the backs of the crowd as it fled. Of the 180 wounded, there were 31 women and 19 children. Of the 69 killed, there were eight women and 10 children. The majority were shot in the back. There had been no warnings beforehand, and no demands from the police to disperse the crowd.
“One little boy had on an old blanket coat, which he held up behind his head, thinking, perhaps, that it might save him from the bullets. Some of the children, hardly as tall as the grass, were leaping like rabbits. Some were shot, too. Still the shooting went on.”
— Humphrey Tyler, journalist.
“I don’t know how many we shot. It all started when hordes of natives surrounded the police station. My car was struck by a stone. If they do these things they must learn their lesson the hard way.”
— Col. Piernaar, police commander at Sharpeville.
“Nearby, another policeman known as Kobuwe went about stabbing those who were still alive. By accident he stabbed a woman who was eight months pregnant. When the woman said to the policeman, ‘Pini, my child, how could you?’ he discovered it was his mother. In frustration, he attempted to remove his uniform, but his white colleagues refused and said ‘Jy draai hom aan, nie so nie, ons gaan ju toesluit’ (Get dressed, not that way, we’ll lock you up.'”
— Solomon Lesito, survivor, from “Sharpeville: An Apartheid Massacre and its Consequences,” by Tom Lodge.
When news of the carnage reached Cape Town, nearly 5,000 protesters swarmed the Langa Flats bus terminal. Police tear-gassed, beat, and shot at the crowd, killing three. Within hours, the country was a storm of riots, demonstrations, and violent responses. A state of emergency was declared on March 30. Thousands were arrested. The African National Congress and PAC were immediately banned by the Nationalist Party, and they fled underground. Non-violence gave way to armed resistance. A massive international outcry ensued, and the U.N. Security Council immediately passed Resolution 134, which called for the abolition of apartheid. South Africa’s apartheid government became an international pariah after the Sharpeville massacre.
In 1998, led by Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found the Sharpeville Massacre to be a gross violation against humans, and financial and symbolic reparations were arranged. On Dec. 10, 1996, President Nelson Mandela signed the Constitution of South Africa at Sharpeville. A human rights day — International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (some call it Heroes’ Day) — was established by the U.N. On March 21, 2001, a memorial was unveiled where the 69 men, women, and children lost their lives outside the Sharpeville police station. President Jacob Zuma gave a keynote speech Friday in Sharpeville, 20 years after South Africa became a democracy.