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Sharpeville, a crime that still echoes

Sharpeville, a crime that still echoes
Demonstrators flee Sharpeville police station as the police began shooting at them with firearms. The crowd had assembled at the police station to demonstrate against the pass laws and to turn in their hated pass books or "dompas". (Photo: Supplied) sharpeville running away main

More than fifty years ago, a massacre shocked the world and proved beyond doubt the inherent monstrosity of the apartheid system. It may have taken another 30 years for it to fall, but it was Sharpeville that first made its ultimate destruction inevitable.

Some years ago, in the company of one of its designers, this writer had the opportunity to visit the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, just before it was opened to the public. Many of the shocking features well-known to people who have visited since were already in place, the entry card assigned by race, the video footage of the gatherings at the Voortrekker Monument, the small mountain of guns collected from the near-open warfare of the KwaZulu-Natal midlands in the 1980s, or Ernest Cole’s photographs of the appalling living conditions of mine workers.

But for this viewer, the most astonishing element of the exhibitions was something collected almost by happenstance – actual film footage of the march on the South African Parliament from Langa and Nyanga townships in 1960. This film footage was almost lost to history. A telephone lineman doing some repair work was also an amateur filmmaker who, while perched atop a telephone pole, happened to have his camera at the ready. This footage sat forgotten for decades in his storeroom and his children, years later, found it and offered it to the Apartheid Museum on the chance it might be historically interesting.

In this film, thousands of disciplined marchers on their way to Parliament on 30 March, under the leadership of Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) youth leader Philip Kgosana, are walking kilometre after kilometre from the sandy reaches of the Cape Flats towards the city centre. This march, and the demonstrations in Sharpeville, Evaton and other places on the Witwatersrand a week earlier, were part of a virtually unprecedented national anti-pass law campaign organised by the PAC, the new anti-apartheid group established by individuals who had just broken away from the ANC because they were dissatisfied with the pace and intensity of the ANC’s opposition to the government’s repressive measures. Under the charismatic Robert Sobukwe, the PAC set out to organise a national anti-pass law campaign, with marches, demonstrations and mass action to turn in the hated passbooks to the police, and thereby refuse to obey the fundamental mechanism underpinning the entire apartheid edifice.

Kgosana ultimately led 20,000 protesters to Parliament. There, police officers promised to allow him to meet with government officials to present the crowd’s grievances – only to arrest him when he returned for that meeting. It sets one wondering, what would have happened had Kgosana simply refused to meet with officials and, instead, insisted on entering Parliament with his gigantic crowd, or, what if the  government had actually negotiated with him in good faith instead of arresting him?

During the protests, in some places, the police and the military managed to disperse the protesters, intimidating them with shows of force using military aircraft and armoured cars. But at Sharpeville on 21 March, a crowd the PAC and other eyewitnesses said was no more than 7,000 boisterous but relatively controlled people – but that the police later claimed to be more than 20,000 rioting, violent and mutinous people – closed in on the local police station intent on carrying out their protest and handing over their passbooks. Someone threw a few rocks and the police responded with automatic weapons fire, killing 69 unarmed people and wounding hundreds more.

A short time later, Time magazine’s reporter would write of Sharpeville:

“As the police emerged to clean up the carnage, one officer grew sick at the sight and vomited. But the police commander [G D Pienaar] said coolly: ‘My car was struck by a stone. If they do these things, they must learn their lesson the hard way.’ The dead ?estimates range from 72 to 90?were carted off to makeshift morgues; more than 200 wounded overflowed the native hospital.”

The firsthand Time, New York Times and Drum reports, accompanying this article, probably more than anything written half a century later could do, provide the full immediacy of the horror with a verisimilitude that can never come from later, more dispassionate scholarly work a world away from the immediacy of the actual events.


World and domestic reaction to the massacre was electrifying in a way South African leaders did not expect, based on the way the world had responded to everything else they had done until then to impose the apartheid system on the nation. Unusual for its time, the US government joined in with almost instant condemnation. Or as the state department’s spokesman told reporters the next day:

“The United States deplores violence in all its forms and hopes that the African people in South Africa will be able to obtain redress for their legitimate grievances by peaceful means. While the United States, as a matter of practice, does not ordinarily comment on the internal affairs of governments with which it enjoys normal relations, it cannot help but regret the tragic loss of life resulting from the measures taken against the demonstrators in South Africa.”

The day after the massacre, The New York Times commented the US government also saw that the protests foreshadowed “the tidal wave of African independence [that] is crashing against the breakwater of Afrikaner resistance….Since they have hardly any arms, the Africans are expected to use massive demonstrations and to burn property” and that they would act further with the support of the newly independent nations of Africa. And undersecretary of state Douglas Dillon, helping to set in motion a defence of two decades of proxy wars between the US and the Soviet Union on the continent, testified to the senate’s foreign relations committee on 22 March that “Africa has been made a major target area by the Communists, who are stepping up their propaganda and aid programs and seeking to heighten frustration and increase tensions in order to block sound progress under free institutions.”

All of this took place in Republican president Dwight Eisenhower’s Washington, a city that had yet to experience the civil rights revolution – Martin Luther King’s march on Washington was years in the future. Washington was still the virtual fiefdom of a committee of southern segregationist Democratic congressmen and senators who actually ran the city in accord with the ways of the deep south. Washington still had segregated public restrooms, buses and water fountains, downtown hotels and restaurants routinely refused service to Washington’s black population, and the city’s leadership was only just starting to realise the impact African diplomats from a clutch of newly independent nations would have on America – and the world.

Sharpeville’s massacre became a defining moment, not simply by virtue of its violence and its casualties. It took place just a few weeks after British prime minister Harold Macmillan had come to Parliament in Cape Town, on 3 February  1960, to deliver his “Wind of Change” speech in which he would tell South Africans and the world  that:

“The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact… As a fellow member of the Commonwealth it is our earnest desire to give South Africa our support and encouragement, but I hope you won’t mind my saying frankly that there are some aspects of your policies which make it impossible for us to do this without being false to our own deep convictions about the political destinies of free men to which in our own territories we are trying to give effect.”

And Sharpeville’s massacre would come just a few months before more than a dozen independent African states moved onto the international scene following the galvanising effect of Ghana and Guinea’s independence less than three years earlier.  Additional states such as Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania were on course for their independence in just a few more years. Soon enough, Rhodesia would declare its Ian Smith-led unilateral independence and the Portuguese would slide ever deeper and deeper into a morass of unending civil war in Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau.

In fact, so rattled were South African authorities by the immediate repercussions of Sharpeville, and then even more so from the march on Parliament only days later, that the government recalled all military personnel from leave and temporarily relaxed the pass laws to calm the situation before it spiralled “out of control”. Soon enough, however, Sharpeville was also the precipitating event for the arrest or interrogation of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people, the movement of others underground or into exile, and then the banning of the ANC and the PAC, as well as their respective military wings – Umkhonto weSizwe and Poqo. Nearly 20 years later, the Soweto generation would hear of these events as if from a near-legendary, long-ago heroic age, even as they created their own movement post-1976. The ancient Greeks told of the inevitable effects from the sowing of dragon’s teeth, and so, it could be said, it came to pass here too.

As this writer was contemplating the place of Sharpeville in historical memory, he asked friends and acquaintances how Sharpeville’s moment had touched them. For some, such as older people living in foreign nations, Sharpeville had been the precipitating event that had propelled them into a career of international social activism. For others, such as black South Africans who had come of age in the 1960s, Sharpeville’s close aftermath was a time of half-known truths, rumours and the anxious moments of the late night rap on the door when the police had come to call.

But perhaps most touching was a note I received from an Afrikaner friend, a former-policeman-turned-university administrator. He wrote to me to say:

“I must admit that the Sharpeville massacre meant very little to me up until the 1980s, as I was only one year old at the time of the event. I only learnt and heard about it during my years at school, during the 60s and 70s, and then it was obviously presented from the perspective of the previous regime.

“The full impact of the event (and others like Soweto 1976) only hit home during my years at university in the early eighties when one’s conscious and enquiring mind starts to kick in. When you start to think freely about the world around you as you are ‘far’ away from the conservative influences of home, [and] one realises there is more to the world than the history teacher at high school in a rural town, SABC radio propaganda and Afrikaans newspapers….[but] I was terribly afraid of the future. Luckily sanity prevailed and we had Nelson Mandela to take us into the future.”

After 1994, Sharpeville Day became a national holiday and then, in a more ecumenical moment, was rechristened Human Rights Day, loosening ties to an event 50 years ago – and so the PAC says – to the movement that had called into being the protests that led to that day in history. DM

This story was first published in 2013.

Read more: Time Magazine’s report, Drum Magazine’s report (Drum, Oct 1960, from Baileys African History Archive), SA History

Read The New York Times coverage (downloadable PDFs of original print reports): Massacre report part 1, Massacre Report part 2, SA Government angry over criticism, Riots continue, US criticises SA, UK Government reaction, UK protests, Pass laws explained, Tragedy of Sharpeville



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