Remembering the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa

Alemayehu G Mariam

South Africa, 1960

On March 21, 1960, exactly 55 years ago today, a crowd estimated at five thousand (according to apartheid police 20 thousand, inflated to justify their extreme response) gathered in front of a police station in the South African township of Sharpeville in Transvaal (presently Gauteng, one of the nine provinces of South Africa). Many of the protesters had gone to the station in response to calls by organizers to defy the pass book (internal “passport” for black South Africans intended to limit their movement) laws and submit to voluntary arrest. Less than two dozen police officers were present at the station when the first group of protesters arrived.  The crowd swelled in a short time. Reinforcements with armored cars and machine guns were brought in from surrounding areas. As more protesters arrived, fighter jets were called in to fly low and buzz the crowd in an attempt to scatter it.

Protesters began throwing rocks and tried to break the police barricades. None of the protesters was armed as a judicial inquiry later confirmed.  The police responded with tear gas and batons. Apartheid police tried to arrest the leaders of the protest and scuffles broke out. A few protesters charged the gates to the station and rushed a police commander. Police opened fire on the crowd with submachine guns and assault rifles.

According to official figures, police fired 705 bullets killing 69 protesters, including 8 women and 10 children. The number of wounded and otherwise injured exceeded 180, including 31 women and 19 children. The vast majority of the victims were shot in the back as they fled the scene, according to the senior district surgeon of Johannesburg who testified before a judicial inquiry.

The eyewitness accounts of the massacre cast significant doubt on the police version of events. One eyewitness reported, “There was no warning volley. When the shooting started it did not stop until there was no living thing in the huge compound in front of the police station. The police have claimed they were in desperate danger because the crowd was stoning them. Yet only three policemen were reported to have been hit by stones – and more than 200 Africans were shot down. The police also have said that the crowd was armed with ‘ferocious weapons’, which littered the compound after they fled. I saw no weapons… I saw only shoes, hats and a few bicycles left among the bodies.”

Lt. Col.  Pienaar, the commanding officer of the police reinforcements at Sharpeville, did not mince words when he spoke to The Guardian. “It all started when hordes of natives surrounded the police station. My car was struck with a stone. If they do these things they must learn their lesson the hard way.” He added, “The native mentality does not allow them to gather for a peaceful demonstration. For them to gather means violence.”  He denied giving any order to fire on the crowd.

A judicial inquiry failed to determine responsibility for the massacre. Within weeks, the supposed organizers of the protest were tried and sentenced up to 3 years.  The apartheid government declared a state of emergency. By May 1960, 18,011 alleged participants and supporters of the protest were held in detention.

The Sharpeville Massacre became a milestone in South African history. The slow unraveling and dismantling of the apartheid regime began in Sharpeville. The massacre galvanized international public opinion. Opposition to apartheid regime spread throughout the world driven by coalitions of civil society and grassroots organizations.  Sharpeville stirred the imagination of black South African youth. The U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 134 which led to increasing international isolation of the apartheid regime. Coalitions of civil society and grassroots organizations mounted mass mobilizations efforts resulting in South Africa’s exclusion from the British Commonwealth in 1961. The apartheid regime responded by becoming even more repressive and consolidated its support among whites. Anti-apartheid organizations within South Africa also consolidated their roles.  The African National Congress began taking a leading role in the anti-apartheid movement and established its military wing. The long march to freedom in South Africa was underway.

International efforts to isolate and sanction the apartheid regime also took a new urgency. Foreign investors became jittery about investing in South Africa under white minority rule.  Following the Sharpeville Massacre, foreign investors took their money out of South Africa and ran. The South African economy teetered on the verge of collapse. In the coming years, increasing economic sanctions were imposed on South Africa. The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 was enacted by the United States Congress. President Ronald Reagan vetoed the law  calling it “economic warfare”, but his veto was overridden by an overwhelming  majority of both houses of Congress. The white minority regime understood its days were numbered and majority rule inevitable.

In 1996, South African President Nelson Mandela chose Sharpeville as the site for the signing of the new constitution.

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