The row of graves of the 69 people killed by police at the Sharpeville Police Station on 21 March 1960.
|Location||Sharpeville, South Africa|
|Date||21 March 1960|
|Assailants||South African Police|
After a day of demonstrations against pass laws, a crowd of about 5,000 to 7,000 protesters went to the police station. The South African Police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people and injuring 180 others. Sources disagree as to the behaviour of the crowd; some state that the crowd was peaceful, while others state that the crowd had been hurling stones at the police, and that the shooting started when the crowd started advancing toward the fence around the police station. There were 249 casualties in total, including 29 children. Many were shot in the back as they fled.
The massacre was photographed by photographer Ian Berry, who initially believed the police were firing blanks. In present-day South Africa, 21 March is celebrated as a public holiday in honour of human rights and to commemorate the Sharpeville massacre.
Sharpeville was first built in 1943 to replace Topville, a nearby township that suffered overcrowding where diseases like pneumonia were widespread. Due to the disease, removals from Topville finally began in 1958 when increases in land values meant remains of Topville could be sold at huge profits to the whites. Approximately 10,000 Africans were forcibly removed to Sharpeville. Sharpeville had a high rate of unemployment as well as high crime rates. There were also youth problems because of how many children joined gangs and were affiliated with crimes instead of schools. Furthermore, a new police station was created, in which the police were energetic to check passes, deporting illegal residents, and raiding illegal shebeens. PAC's main tactic during the demonstration was to forcibly prevent bus drivers from taking passengers to work.
South African governments since the eighteenth century had enacted measures to restrict the flow of black South Africans into cities. Pass laws intended to control and direct their movement and employment were updated in the 1950s. Under the country's National Party government, black residents in urban districts were subject to influx control measures. Individuals over sixteen were required to carry passbooks, which contained an identity card, employment and influx authorisation from a labour bureau, name of employer and address, and details of personal history. Leading up to the Sharpeville massacre, the National Party administration under the leadership of Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd used these laws to enforce greater racial segregation and, in 1959-1960, extended them to include women.:pp.14,528 From the 1960s, the pass laws were the primary instrument used by the state to detain and harass its political opponents.:p.163
The African National Congress (ANC) prepared to initiate a campaign of protests against pass laws. These protests were to begin on 31 March 1960, but the rival Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), led by Robert Sobukwe, decided to pre-empt the ANC by launching its own campaign ten days earlier, on 21 March, because they believed that the ANC could not win the campaign.
In 1952, the Native Laws Amendment Act was passed, which normalized the use of passes by Africans. Instead of carrying pass books, Africans were told to carry reference books, which would contain their photograph, employment record, and personal information. Moreover, if the reference books were not carried then it would be considered a criminal offense. On March 21, 1960, the ANC called for a series of anti-pass law protests. (Westhuizen)
In 1958, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) was formed out of dissatisfaction due to the internationalist approach to the African National Congress (ANC) as well as the imprisonment of many ANC leaders. Robert Sobukwe became the leader of the PAC and was also the editor of the African journal called Beware that advocated protest and non-cooperation aimed towards the whites. However, he was influenced and attracted by the Africanist wing and influenced by Anton Lembede. (Brown)
The PAC felt that the ANC had betrayed the principles by working with other racial groups. The PAC's philosophy was that it opposed Communism and associated with other racial groups such as the whites. Moreover, the PAC believed that Africans oversaw their own destiny and that they should not be controlled by anyone. Extremists in the PAC said that there was no place for whites or Indians. However, on the other side, the ANC disagreed with PAC's philosophy and believed that members of all races are welcome. (Brown)
The demonstrations consisted of peaceful protests demanding arrest for not carrying passes; however, the police refused to arrest the crowd due to the large amount of demonstrators. The trigger for the massacre came when a drunken demonstrator named Geelbooi Mofokeng fired a pistol in the air and simultaneously a policeman stumbled, leading for the colleagues of the police to think that a policeman was shot; however, the shot was fired in the air, which did not hurt anyone. The whites police started firing at the crowd. In the massacre, 69 people were killed and 200 were injured, many died later from their wounds. Out of the people that were either injured or shot, 70% of the people were shot in the back as they were running away from the firing. (Zambian)
On 21 March, a group of between 5,000 and 10,000 people converged on the local police station in the township of Sharpeville, offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying their passbooks. The Sharpeville police were not completely unprepared for the demonstration, as they had already driven smaller groups of more militant activists away the previous night.
PAC actively organized to increase turnout to the demonstration, distributing pamphlets and appearing in person to urge people not to go to work on the day of the protest. Many of the civilians present attended voluntarily to support the protest, but there is evidence that the PAC also used coercive means to draw the crowd there, including the cutting of telephone lines into Sharpeville, and preventing bus drivers from driving their routes.:p.534
By 10:00, a large crowd had gathered, and the atmosphere was initially peaceful and festive. Fewer than 20 police officers were present in the station at the start of the protest. Later the crowd grew to about 20,000, and the mood was described as "ugly", prompting about 130 police reinforcements, supported by four Saracen armoured personnel carriers, to be rushed in. The police were armed with firearms, including Sten submachine guns and Lee-Enfield rifles. There was no evidence that anyone in the gathering was armed with anything other than rocks.
F-86 Sabre jets and Harvard Trainers approached to within a hundred feet of the ground, flying low over the crowd in an attempt to scatter it. The protesters responded by hurling stones (striking three policemen) and rushing the police barricades. Police officers attempted to use tear gas to repel these advances, but it proved ineffectual, and the police fell back on the use of their batons. At about 13:00 the police tried to arrest a protester, and the crowd surged forward. The shooting began shortly thereafter.
The official figure is that 69 people were killed, including 8 women and 10 children, and 180 injured, including 31 women and 19 children. Many were shot in the back as they turned to flee, causing some to be paralyzed.
Police reports in 1960 claimed that young and inexperienced police officers panicked and opened fire spontaneously, setting off a chain reaction that lasted about forty seconds. It is likely that the police were quick to fire as two months before the massacre, nine constables had been assaulted and killed, some disembowelled, during a raid at Cato Manor. In addition, few of the policemen present had received public order training. Some of them had been on duty for over twenty-four hours without respite. Some insight into the mindset of those on the police force was provided by Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar, the commanding officer of the police reinforcements at Sharpeville, who said in his statement that "the native mentality does not allow them to gather for a peaceful demonstration. For them to gather means violence." He also denied giving any order to fire and stated that he would not have done so.
Other evidence given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission "the evidence of Commission deponents reveals a degree of deliberation in the decision to open fire at Sharpville and indicates that the shooting was more than the result of inexperienced and frightened police officers losing their nerve.":p.538
There were several factors that influenced the occurrence of the Sharpeville Massacre on March 21st 1960. The police were on the edge because 9 other cops were killed in riots in Cato Manor. Moreover, the senior police officers that were present at the moment did not give clear instructions on or of what to do about the crowd. March 21st was also a hot day and there was a standoff for more than 5 hours, because of which people were impatient and tired as well. The leader of the revolt, Tsolo was arrested and the crowd had no leader and instructions to follow. One of the main reason was that the protesters refused to listen to the police when asked to move into a football field. The conflict and the racist ideology between the whites and the Africans can also be considered a cause of the massacre. (Humprehy)
The uproar among South Africa's black population was immediate, and the following week saw demonstrations, protest marches, strikes, and riots around the country. On 30 March 1960, the government declared a state of emergency, detaining more than 18,000 people, including prominent anti-apartheid activists who were known as members of the Congress Alliance.
A storm of international protest followed the Sharpeville shootings, including sympathetic demonstrations in many countries and condemnation by the United Nations. On 1 April 1960, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 134. Sharpeville marked a turning point in South Africa's history; the country found itself increasingly isolated in the international community. The event also played a role in South Africa's departure from the Commonwealth of Nations in 1961.
The Sharpeville massacre contributed to the banning of the PAC and ANC as illegal organisations. The massacre was one of the catalysts for a shift from passive resistance to armed resistance by these organisations. The foundation of Poqo, the military wing of the PAC, and Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, followed shortly afterwards.
Not all reactions were negative: embroiled in the Civil Rights Movement, the Mississippi House of Representatives voted a resolution supporting the South African government "for its steadfast policy of segregation and the [staunch] adherence to their traditions in the face of overwhelming external agitation."
In 1998, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) found that the police actions constituted "gross human rights violations in that excessive force was unnecessarily used to stop a gathering of unarmed people.":p.537
On 21 March 2002, the 42nd anniversary of the massacre, a memorial was opened by former President Nelson Mandela as part of the Sharpeville Human Rights Precinct.
A state of emergency was declared on March 30 seeing the arrest of 10,000 people, including Mandela and some still enmeshed in Treason Trial. (Humprehy)
A lack of trust was established between the police and the people. Police arrested protesters in hospitals and leaders were arrested in detention cells and police officers accused of putting rocks and weapons in hands of dead. The government appointed the Wessels Commission of Inquiry to investigate the massacre. Africans were too intimidated to testify as they were told what to say by the PAC. Many were reluctant to interview Africans and ignored suggestions that police tampered the evidence. One of the international repercussions was that under the Security Council Resolution 134, the UN resolution condemned the South African government for the Sharpeville Massacre, blaming shootings on the system of Apartheid and asserting that violence would continue till the concept of Apartheid ended (Forty). The Sharpeville massacre is considered to be the turning point of Apartheid in South Africa because it shocked and alerted the world of what going on in South Africa in the name of Apartheid (Humprehy). However, some people also believe that it was merely an event, such as one Historian Curtis Lemay: "In the event Sharpeville was merely an incident, a turning point at which no-one turned" (Lemay). The state could no longer justify Apartheid as any king of benign system, nor tolerate anything but the timidest resistance and robust Reponses by the government galvanized criticism elsewhere, when racism was diminishing in other countries and former colonies were gaining independence. The Sharpeville massacre affected 216 families and 500 children and this massacre is not discussed in Africa as to protect from politicization and militancy. Nevertheless, there is also a debate on how shock the international community and their opinion was on the Sharpeville massacre. (Sharpeville) 
UNESCO marks 21 March as the yearly International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in memory of the massacre.
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