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Remembering Sharpeville: the killing of 69 black South Africans on March 21st, 1960 was a turning point: the world judged apartheid to be morally bankrupt and the political agitation that ensued would eventually overturn white supremacy.


Fifty years ago the name Sharpeville reverberated around the world. Newspaper headlines proclaimed that numerous protesters against South Africa's notorious pass laws had been killed and many more wounded. Articles were accompanied by images of corpses strewn across an open veld beyond the perimeters of a police station in the black township. Sharpeville became a reference point for the world's assessment of the apartheid system. And the world was aghast.

So why was Sharpeville catapulted into the global spotlight? What meanings were ascribed to the events of March 21st, 1960? And what have these events come to mean since then?

Sharpeville is situated in the Vaal Triangle- an area of the southern Transvaal (now Gauteng) that includes the mining and industrial towns of Vereeniging and Vanderbijlpark. Sharpeville was planned in the 1940s as a 'model township' to house residents moved from the Top Location, an informal settlement that abutted Vereeniging. Sharpeville was feted as the best-serviced township in South Africa. However, because of the postwar influx of workseekers, the township became overcrowded and the living conditions appalling. This was especially so in the area of Sharpeville known as Vuka, where unemployment and criminality were rife.

Sharpeville was politically quiescent until the late 1950s when the enforcement of the pass laws was stepped up. This resulted in peremptory raids on homes and shacks and arbitrary arrests for the violation of a range of petty apartheid laws. These circumstances made Sharpeville a fertile recruiting ground for extra-parliamentary political organisations, especially the newly established Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) under the leadership of Robert Sobukwe. The African National Congress (ANC), though, was conspicuous by its absence from the township.

The PAC mounted a campaign against the pass laws which included the burning of the hated dompas (literally 'stupid pass'). It upstaged the ANC and confounded the authorities when it distributed a pamphlet on Friday, March 18th announcing that mass demonstrations would be staged in townships across the length and breadth of the country on the following Monday.

On the morning of March 21st, 1960, Sharpeville residents gathered outside the police station to demand they be arrested for not carrying passes. Others congregated because they believed that an announcement about the scrapping of pass laws was imminent. Still others were compelled to join the protesters by criminal elements or PAC task teams, which prevented commuters from going to work. The police watched nervously as the crowd swelled from 5,000 to 20,000 by midday. They were separated by a low-slung fence that failed to provide a barrier against verbal insults and taunts, as well as the occasional stones thrown at them. The crowd was vociferous but not violent.

During the course of the morning, the Sharpeville police contingent was reinforced by details from regional stations. More than 300 well-armed policemen manned the precinct. Their weaponry included pistols, rifles, Sten guns and machine guns mounted on three Saracen armoured carriers. However, the poorly trained policemen were not familiar with the standing orders with regard to crowd control. And their inept and indecisive leaders made no contingency plans. In fact, the high-ranking police officers present in the station disagreed about how to handle the volatile situation. No attempt was made to disperse the crowd by means of baton charges or the use of teargas. The police simply waited for events to unfold.

At about 1.30pm two shots were apparently discharged by someone in the crowd. The panicked policemen commenced firing without warning or orders to do so. Moreover, they continued firing indiscriminately upon the fleeing protesters, many of whom were shot in the back. The official toll amounted to 69 dead and 186 wounded. It is likely that the real figures were considerably higher.

Later the same day police fired on demonstrating crowds in the Cape Town townships of Langa and Nyanga, killing at least three people. A week later student Philip Kgosana led a march of over 30,000 people from Langa to the Caledon Street police station in Cape Town. Equally dramatic events occurred in Cato Manor near Durban. The Sharpeville shooting was thus not the only incident of its kind. But the scale of the slaughter in the Transvaal township made it exceptional.

Sharpeville shook white South Africa to its core. Following the British premier Harold Macmillan's 'winds of change' speech in Cape Town to the South African parliament in the previous month, in which he warned obdurate South Africans that the days of colonialism were numbered, it dispelled any notion that white supremacy could be maintained indefinitely without bloodshed. Nonetheless, white South Africans seemed willing to pay the price of international opprobrium and isolation in order to sustain their domination and power.

Sharpeville vindicated apartheid's critics who insisted that the institutionalised violence of the apartheid system was unsustainable except at enormous human cost. Apartheid might not have been an exterminationist ideology but Sharpeville revealed its moral bankruptcy.

The government appointed a Commission of Inquiry to offset criticism. The compliant but nominally independent Mr Justice Wessels was tasked to investigate events in the Vereeniging and Vanderbijlpark area. The findings were that the Sharpeville shootings were precipitated by a violent and unruly 'native mob' that assembled before the police station with the clear intention of attacking its occupants. The policemen acted in self-defence. Although the commission did not entirely exonerate the police, there was never any likelihood of bringing them to book for their actions. The Commission effectively condoned their behaviour as necessary to maintain law and order. Justice was clearly not colour blind.

The apartheid government responded to the domestic crisis by proclaiming a state of emergency and detaining thousands of political activists. This was followed by the banning of the liberation movements. These movements then went underground and adopted the armed struggle. In June 1961, the ANC established Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation) and the PAC formed its military wing known as the Azanian People's Liberation Army (APLA). The government also took steps to stem the flow of currency from the country and to bolster economic confidence.

In the years following 1960 the PAC commemorated March 21st as Sharpeville Day, while survivors held night vigils to mourn the dead. With the advent of democracy, the ANC-led government of National Unity declared March 21st a public holiday, but controversy erupted when the PAC accused the ANC of hijacking the commemoration of Sharpeville for its own political agenda. The change of name to Human Rights Day effectively detached Sharpeville from the specificity of the anti-apartheid struggle and framed it as part of the quest for human rights. Given the PAC's standing and minuscule support base in post-apartheid South Africa, it finds itself fighting a rearguard action to assert its role in the memory of Sharpeville.

The site of the Sharpeville massacre remained publicly unacknowledged until Nelson Mandela unveiled a small memorial stone in 1996. In keeping with the ANC government's commitment to promote heritage as part of a project for urban renewal and development, it was subsequently upgraded and called the Human Rights Precinct- although more popularly known as the Sharpeville Memorial. Opened on March 21st, 2002, it includes a memorial garden with 69 headstones representing those killed on the fateful day 42 years earlier. The project was funded by the ANC-dominated Vereeniging council and this led to renewed charges that the ruling party was intent on appropriating the memory of Sharpeville. In protest against the ANC-initiated memorial, the PAC erected a separate memorial in the local cemetery where victims of the massacre are buried.

So Sharpeville now has two memorial sites. The ANC and PAC's struggle for ownership of the liberation struggle is essentially about these party's claims to legitimacy and to be remembered as the primary actors in a defining moment in the country's past. Needless to say, the apartheid state's version of Sharpeville has lost all legitimacy in South Africa's changed political landscape.

Gary Baines is Lecturer in History, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa. For more articles on this subject visit
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Title Annotation:Today's History
Author:Baines, Gary
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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