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Remembering the Sharpeville Massacre: A Tragic Turning Point in South Africa’s History


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The Sharpeville massacre occurred on 21 March 1960 in the township of Sharpeville, South Africa.

This incident occurred at the local police station during a protest against Pass Law, attracting a crowd of approximately 7,000 demonstrators.

Pass laws in South Africa were a system of internal passports aimed at segregating the population, controlling urbanization, and regulating migrant labor.

These laws, also known as the Natives’ law, imposed strict limitations on the movement of black African citizens and others, confining them to specific areas.

Pass laws were a prominent feature of the apartheid system until their effective abolition in 1986.

During the Pass Law protest, sources state that it was a peaceful protest while others state otherwise.

The South African Police (SAP) responded by opening fire on the advancing crowd, as attempts to disperse them with tear gas proved ineffective.

Shockingly, a total of 249 individuals, including 29 children, were affected, with 69 people losing their lives and 180 sustaining injuries. Disturbingly, some victims were shot in the back while fleeing the scene.

Sharpeville Massacre
source: workers world

Photographer Ian Berry captured the harrowing images of the massacre, initially believing that the police were using blank rounds.

Today, 21 March is observed as a public holiday in South Africa, commemorating the Sharpeville massacre and serving as a reminder of the importance of human rights.

In this SEO article, we aim to delve deeper into the historical significance of the Sharpeville massacre, exploring its context, the events leading up to the tragedy, the immediate aftermath, and its lasting impact on South African society.

Life before the Sharpeville massacre

Sharpeville, established in 1943 as a replacement for the overcrowded township of Topville, played a significant role in addressing the prevalent health issues, particularly pneumonia outbreaks.

Starting in 1958, around 10,000 Africans were forcefully relocated to Sharpeville due to health concerns in Topville.

The township experienced high rates of unemployment, contributing to social and economic difficulties.

Additionally, crime rates were alarmingly high, with many young individuals joining gangs instead of pursuing education. This youth problem posed a significant concern for the community.

To maintain law and order, a new police station was established in Sharpeville. The police were diligent in enforcing passed laws, ensuring the deportation of illegal residents, and conducting raids on illegal drinking establishments known as shebeens.

Throughout the eighteenth century and onwards, South African governments implemented various measures to control the movement of African South Africans into urban areas.

Pass laws, specifically designed to regulate their mobility and employment, underwent updates in the 1950s. Under the National Party government, African residents in urban districts faced influx control measures.

Anyone over the age of sixteen had to carry a passbook containing personal identification, employment details, authorization for residence, and historical information.

In the lead-up to the Sharpeville massacre, the National Party administration, led by Hendrik Verwoerd, utilized these laws to enforce greater racial segregation.

Notably, in 1959–1960, the regulations were extended to include women. As the 1960s unfolded, the pass laws became a primary tool for the state to suppress and harass its political opponents.

Meanwhile, the African National Congress (ANC) was preparing to launch a campaign protesting against the pass laws.

Originally scheduled for March 31, 1960, the rival Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), led by Robert Sobukwe, decided to initiate their own campaign earlier on March 21. The PAC believed that launching ahead of the ANC would enhance their chances of success.

This information provides an overview of the historical context leading up to the Sharpeville massacre, highlighting the significance of Pass laws and the competition between political organizations in the fight against racial discrimination and oppression.

Sharpeville Massacre

On March 21, 1960, a significant gathering of people, estimated to be between 5,000 and 10,000, assembled at the local police station in Sharpeville, South Africa.

Their purpose was to defy the requirement of carrying passbooks, willingly subjecting themselves to arrest.

The police station had some prior knowledge of the demonstration, having encountered smaller groups of more militant activists the previous night.

The Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) played an active role in mobilizing support for the protest. They distributed pamphlets and personally urged individuals to join the demonstration by abstaining from work on that day.

While some civilians attended voluntarily to express solidarity, there is evidence suggesting that the PAC employed coercive tactics to ensure a large turnout.

These tactics included cutting off telephone lines to Sharpeville and preventing bus drivers from operating their routes.

Initially, the atmosphere among the growing crowd was peaceful and even celebratory. Only a small number of police officers were present at the beginning of the protest.

However, as the crowd swelled to approximately 20,000, the mood turned tense and confrontational, prompting the arrival of around 130 additional police officers supported by armored personnel carriers.

The police were armed with firearms, however, no evidence suggests that anyone in the gathering possessed weapons other than stones.

In an attempt to disperse the crowd, F-86 Sabre jets and Harvard Trainers flew low over the gathering.

This action aimed to intimidate the protesters, but instead, it incited them to throw stones, resulting in minor injuries to three police officers.

As the crowd pressed against police barricades, the officers resorted to tear gas, which proved ineffective. Subsequently, they resorted to wielding batons.

At around 1pm, as the police attempted to arrest a protester, the crowd surged forward. At this point, the police opened fire, initiating the tragic events of the Sharpeville massacre.

According to official records, the Sharpeville massacre resulted in the tragic loss of 69 lives, including 8 women and 10 children.

Remembering the Sharpeville Massacre: A Tragic Turning Point in South Africa's History

Additionally, 180 people were injured, with 31 women and 19 children among them. Disturbingly, many victims were shot in the back as they turned to flee, causing some to become paralyzed.

In the aftermath of the massacre, a mass burial took place, conducted by clergy members. Among them was Philip Finkie Molefe, who played a significant role in establishing the first Assemblies of God church in the Vaal region.

The police initially claimed that the shooting was the result of young and inexperienced officers panicking and opening fire spontaneously.

They argued that recent incidents, such as the assault and killing of nine constables during a raid at Cato Manor, had created a tense environment.

It is important to note that most of the officers present had not received proper training in handling public order situations.

The mindset of certain officers was revealed through statements made by Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar, the commanding officer of the police reinforcements at Sharpeville.

He asserted that the native population had a propensity for violence and that their gatherings were inherently volatile. He denied giving any order to fire and expressed his belief that he wouldn’t have done so.

However, the evidence presented to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission painted a different picture.

Testimonies indicated that there was a level of deliberation in the decision to open fire and that the shooting was not solely the result of inexperienced and frightened police officers losing control of the situation.


The Sharpeville massacre triggered an immediate and widespread uproar among South Africa’s black population.

The following week witnessed a wave of demonstrations, protest marches, strikes, and riots across the country.

In response, the government declared a state of emergency on March 30, 1960, and detained over 18,000 people, including prominent anti-apartheid activists like Nelson Mandela.

The impact of the massacre extended beyond the black community. Many white South Africans were horrified by the events.

Internationally, there was a storm of protest against the Sharpeville shootings. Sympathetic demonstrations took place in numerous countries, and the United Nations condemned the incident.

On April 1, 1960, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 134. Sharpeville marked a significant turning point in South Africa’s history, leading to the country’s increasing isolation within the international community.

It also played a role in South Africa’s departure from the Commonwealth of Nations in 1961. The Sharpeville massacre resulted in banning the PAC and ANC as illegal organizations.

It served as a catalyst for these groups to shift from passive resistance to armed resistance. Soon after, the military wings of the PAC (Poqo) and ANC (Umkhonto we Sizwe) were established.

While many reactions were negative, it’s worth noting that the Mississippi House of Representatives, entangled in its opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, passed a resolution in support of the South African government’s segregation policies.

Since 1994, March 21 has been commemorated as Human Rights Day in South Africa. Sharpeville was chosen by President Nelson Mandela as the site for the signing of the Constitution of South Africa on December 10, 1996.

Also read: The Zong Massacre, how 133 Enslaved Africans Became Victims for Insurance Gain

In 2002, on the 42nd anniversary of the massacre, a memorial was inaugurated by Nelson Mandela as part of the Sharpeville Human Rights Precinct.

Furthermore, UNESCO observes March 21 as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in memory of the Sharpeville massacre.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1998 acknowledged the police actions as “gross human rights violations” for their excessive and unnecessary use of force against unarmed individuals.




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