The Sharpeville Massacre, also known as the Sharpeville shootings, occurred on 21 March 1960, when South African police began shooting on a crowd of black protesters.
The confrontation occurred in the township of Sharpeville, in what is now Gauteng province.
On 21 March, a group of between 5,000 and 7,000 people converged on the local police station in the township of Sharpeville, offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying their pass books. This was part of a broader campaign organized by the PAC. There is evidence that the PAC used intimidating means to draw the crowd to the protest, including the cutting of telephone lines into Sharpeville, the distribution of pamphlets telling people not to go to work on the day, and coercion of bus drivers.:p.534 Regardless, most of the crowd were in favour of the protest.
By 10:00 am, a large crowd had gathered, and the atmosphere was peaceful and festive. Fewer than 20 police officers were present in the station at the start of the protest. Police and military used low-flying Sabre jet fighters to attempt to intimidate the crowd into dispersing, a tactic that had been successful at a similar protest on the same day at Evaton.:p.535 The police set up Saracen armoured vehicles in a line facing the protesters and, at 1:15 pm, fired upon the crowd.
Police reports claimed that members of the crowd threw stones at them (or at their cars) and that inexperienced police officers opened fire spontaneously. The police were armed with Stens and tear gas. Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar, the commanding officer of the police forces at Sharpeville, denied giving any order to fire and stated that he would not have done so. Nevertheless, his attitude towards the protest is revealed in his statement that "the native mentality does not allow them to gather for a peaceful demonstration. For them to gather means violence." It is likely that the police were nervous as, two months before the massacre, nine police officers had been killed by a mob at Cato Manor. Evidence given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1998 suggested "a degree of deliberation in the decision to open fire". The police continued firing even when the crowd had turned to run, and the majority of those killed and wounded were shot in the back.:p.537 There was no evidence that anyone in the crowd was armed.
The official figure is that 69 people were killed, including 8 women and 10 children, and over 180 injured, including 31 women and 19 children.
On 21 March 1960 at least 180 black Africans were injured (there are claims of as many as 300) and 69 killed when South African police opened fire on approximately 300 demonstrators, who were protesting against the pass laws, at the township of Sharpeville, near Vereeniging in the Transvaal. In similar demonstrations at the police station in Vanderbijlpark, another person was shot. Later that day at Langa, a township outside Cape Town, police baton charged and fired tear gas at the gathered protesters, shooting three and injuring several others. The Sharpeville Massacre, as the event has become known, signalled the start of armed resistance in South Africa, and prompted worldwide condemnation of South Africa's Apartheid policies.
A build-up to the massacre
On 13 May 1902 the treaty which ended the Anglo-Boer War was signed at Vereeniging; it signified a new era of cooperation between English and Afrikaner living in Southern Africa. By 1910, the two Afrikaner states of Orange River Colony (Oranje Vrij Staat) and Transvaal (Zuid Afrikaansche Republick) were joined with Cape Colony and Natal as the Union of South Africa. The repression of black Africans became entrenched in the constitution of the new union (although perhaps not intentionally) and the foundations of Grand Apartheid were laid.
After the Second World War the Herstigte ('Reformed' or 'Pure') National Party (HNP) came into power (by a slender majority, created through a coalition with the otherwise insignificant Afrikaner Party) in 1948. Its members had been disaffected from the previous government, the United Party, in 1933, and had smarted at the government's accord with Britain during the war. Within a year the Mixed Marriages Act was instituted – the first of many segregationist laws devised to separate privileged white South Africans from the black African masses. By 1958, with the election of Hendrik Verwoerd, (white) South Africa was completely entrenched in the philosophy of Apartheid.
There was opposition to the government's policies. The African National Congress (ANC) was working within the law against all forms of racial discrimination in South Africa. In 1956 had committed itself to a South Africa which "belongs to all." A peaceful demonstration in June that same year, at which the ANC (and other anti-Apartheid groups) approved the Freedom Charter, led to the arrest of 156 anti-Apartheid leaders and the 'Treason Trial' which lasted until 1961.
By the late 1950s some of ANCs members had become disillusioned with the 'peaceful' response. Known as 'Africanists' this select group was opposed to a multi-racial future for South Africa. The Africanists followed a philosophy that a racially assertive sense of nationalism was needed to mobilise the masses, and they advocated a strategy of mass action (boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience and non-cooperation). The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) was formed in April 1959, with Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe as president.
The PAC and ANC did not agree on policy, and it seemed unlikely in 1959 that they would co-operate in any manner. The ANC planned a campaign of demonstration against the pass laws to start at the beginning of April 1960. The PAC rushed ahead and announced a similar demonstration, to start ten days earlier, effectively hijacking the ANC campaign.
The PAC called for "African males in every city and village... to leave their passes at home, join demonstrations and, if arrested, [to] offer no bail, no defence, [and] no fine."1
On 16 March 1960 Sobukwe wrote to the commissioner of police, Major General Rademeyer, stating that the PAC would beholding a five-day, non-violent, disciplined, and sustained protest campaign against pass laws, starting on 21 March. At a press conference on 18 March he further stated: "I have appealed to the African people to make sure that this campaign is conducted in a spirit of absolute non-violence, and I am quite certain they will heed my call. If the other side so desires, we will provide them with an opportunity to demonstrate to the world how brutal they can be." The PAC leadership was hopeful of some kind of physical response.
Sharpeville Massacre (21 Mar. 1960) A massacre caused by the police opening fire on demonstrators from the PAC in the Black township of Sharpeville (near Vereeniging, Transvaal), in which sixty-nine people were killed and 186 injured. It came to symbolize the repressive nature of the White regime, triggering large-scale protests from the PAC and ANC. At the same time, it allowed the White apartheid regime to tighten its grip on the country through increased repression, declaring a state of emergency and outlawing both the PAC and the ANC. This almost destroyed Black nationalist opposition in the subsequent decade, while the ‘stability’ thus imposed heralded a period of unequalled economic growth.
The Sharpeville Massacre, which occurred on March 21, 1960, in the township of Sharpeville, South Africa, was the incident that to that point resulted in the deaths of the largest number of South Africans in a protest against apartheid. It also came to symbolize that struggle.
Sharpeville, a black suburb outside of Vereeniging (about fifty miles south of Johannesburg), was through the 1950s a community untouched by anti-apartheid demonstrations that occurred in surrounding towns. By 1960, however, anti-apartheid activism reached the town. In March, 1960, Robert Sobukwe, a leader in the anti-apartheid Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) organized the town's first anti-apartheid protest. In order to reduce the possibility of violence he wrote a letter to the Sharpeville police commissioner announcing the upcoming protest and emphasizing that its participants would be non-violent.
On March 21, an estimated 7,000 Africans gathered in front of the Sharpeville police station to protest against the restrictive pass laws. Nearly 300 police officers arrived to put an end to the peaceful protest. As they attempted to disperse the crowd, a police officer was knocked down and many in the crowed began to move forward to see what had happened. Police witnesses claimed that stones were thrown, and in a panicked and rash reaction, the officers opened fire into the crowd. Other witnesses claimed there was no order to open fire, and the police did not fire a warning shot above the crowd. As the thousands of African tried to flee the violent scene, police continued to shoot into the crowd. Sixty-nine Africans were killed and 186 were wounded with most shot in the back.
21 March 1960 Sharpeville: Anti-apartheid protesters gather to challenge South Africa 's pass laws that prescribe where blacks can go. The police open fire and 69 people die - most of them from bullet wounds in the back. The government declares a State of Emergency and bans the ANC and other opposition groups. Mandela is arrested. Oliver Tambo leaves the country under orders to work for the ANC cause from exile.
After the Sharpeville Massacre, the ANC was outlawed, and Mandela, still on trial, was detained.