I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
On March 21, 1960 an estimated 5,000 Africans gathered in Sharpeville Township, about 30 miles south of Johannesburg, South Africa. They were engaged in a peaceful demonstration, calling for an end to the country’s racial segregation policy known as apartheid. Police opened fire on the crowd killing 69 people and wounding 186 others.
In 1960, 68 percent of the country’s population was Black African, while the white population was 19 percent. Asians and people of mixed race made up the rest. A government board decided on which group people belonged to by sometimes using the “comb test.” The BBC reported that this test “involved putting a comb through hair―if it got stuck, that meant the person being tested was identified as African.”
The Reality of Apartheid
In 1948, the National Party (NP), dominated by Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans came to power. The party and the people of Dutch descent that supported it had long developed an identity based on white supremacy. The NP enacted laws that deepened already-existing rules that discriminated against people of colour.
Africans did not have the right to vote; in fact, they possessed almost no rights at all. They were forced to live in townships outside the country’s cities and only allowed to enter urban areas to work. They had to carry a passbook that police frequently checked to ensure they were not in an area from which they were banned.
Public transportation, schools, housing, parks, and hospitals were segregated and government services provided to Africans were generally of inferior quality. Africans were restricted to menial and poorly paid work. The result was that Africans suffered high levels of poverty and low life expectancy.
Life in South African Townships
In 1914, the town councillors of Vereeniging decided they no longer wanted Black Africans living among them. An area 14 km north of the town was set up as a place where non-whites could live. This was known as Toplocation. Soon it became overcrowded and, in 1935, Sharpeville was established. It and many other communities where Africans could only live were called townships.
Simple houses made of grey concrete blocks and corrugated iron roofs were put up for rent; Africans were not allowed to own their own homes. One water tap was shared by up to 14 families.
Fifty years later, an Associated Press (AP) report confirmed that little improvement had been seen in the townships. Duduza (it means “place of comfort” in Zulu) was 40 miles east of Johannesburg. AP noted “Its famous sites include the school principal’s house with the township’s only flush toilet.” Each house had four tiny rooms and there was no electricity.
But, such accommodation was considered a luxury by many, who had no option but to live in hovels built out of tin, plywood, and cardboard.
As an AP correspondent noted it was inevitable there would be an uprising against “the grinding misery and repeated humiliations of life in the townships.”
Resistance to Apartheid
The uprising began in the early 1950s. Africans attended meetings to talk about how they could oppose apartheid. Such gatherings were declared illegal and police cracked down on attendees with brutality.
This brings us to Sharpeville in the early southern hemisphere autumn of 1960. The township had been largely peaceful until anti-apartheid activists started organizing in early 1960. They drew up a plan for people to go to the police station and hand in their hated passbooks.
Historian Marissa Evans picks up the narrative: “In March 1960, Robert Sobukwe, a leader in the anti-apartheid Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) . . . wrote a letter to the Sharpeville police commissioner announcing the upcoming protest and emphasizing that its participants would be non-violent.”
The Sharpeville Massacre
On the morning of March 21, 1960 several thousand residents of Sharpeville marched to the township’s police station. Some estimates put the size of the crowd at 20,000. Lined up outside was a large contingent of armed police with some atop armoured cars.
PAC leaders asked for permission to surrender because they weren’t carrying passbooks. Eventually, they were allowed to do that while the crowd, in a mood described as festive, chanted and sang freedom songs.
According to South African History Online “At 13h15 a small scuffle began near the entrance of the police station. A policeman was accidentally pushed over and the crowd began to move forward to see what was happening.” Police said the demonstrators started to stone them.
Ian Berry, a photographer from Drum magazine, witnessed what happened next: “I can’t say for sure that nobody lobbed a stone at the police, but I do not believe a threatening situation had built up in the time it took me to walk the two sides of the compound and back. The cops were in no danger. I can only assume that they came out with the intention of showing the crowd, and in the process black South Africa, a dreadful lesson.”
Humphrey Tyler, also with Drum magazine, was at the scene: “Then the shooting started. We heard the chatter of a machine gun, then another, then another. There were hundreds of women, some of them laughing. They must have thought the police were firing blanks. One woman was hit about ten yards from our car. Her companion, a young man, went back when she fell. He thought she had stumbled. Then he turned her over and saw that her chest had been shot away. He looked at the blood on his hand and said: ‘My God, she’s gone!’ ”
That woman was one of 69 killed and 186 injured that day. Most of the victims were shot in the back as they tried to run away.
Aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre
The international community woke up to the injustice of apartheid. International law professor Steven Wheatley writes that “In 1960, states had no binding international human rights obligations and there were no oversight mechanisms. All that changed following the world’s moral outrage at the killings.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights approved by the United Nations in 1948 was not binding on its signatories. Sharpeville prompted the UN to declare that apartheid could no longer be tolerated, and urged member states to place trade embargoes on the country. Individual consumers boycotted South African goods, particularly wine.
In 1961, South Africa was booted out of the Commonwealth of Nations.
The response from the South African government was to tighten the apartheid screws even harder. A state of emergency was declared and, in a space of five months, 25,000 people were arrested. The government clung to its segregationist policies and gave the diplomatic finger to the rest of the world.
Pan-Africanist Congress, which stressed the need for peaceful protests, gave way to the more militant African National Congress. Anti-apartheid demonstrations turned violent, and each assault on symbols of oppression was met with brutal reprisals.
International condemnation grew fiercer and white South Africans became weary of the bloodshed. As economic sanctions bit deeper, the government of F.W. de Klerk, a little more enlightened than its predecessors, yielded to the pressure. The machinery of apartheid was fully dismantled in 1994.
The transition to freedom and democracy that gained momentum with the Sharpeville Massacre has not been easy. Human Rights Watch has reported that “In 2018, South Africa’s record on respect for human rights and the rule of law remained poor . . .”
- To commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre, The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is held every March 21. It’s a public holiday in South Africa.
- In a South African Social Attitudes Survey in 2021 39 percent of people had not heard of the Sharpeville Massacre and only 19 percent knew enough about it to describe the event accurately.
- In 1986, the U.S. Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which enacted strong sanctions on South Africa. President Ronald Reagan vetoed the act, and Congress voted to override the veto.
- Max Coleman, in his 1998 book A Crime Against Humanity, estimates that political violence against apartheid took the lives of about 21,000 people.
- “The Harsh Reality of Life under Apartheid in South Africa.” Erin Blakemore, History.com, May 9, 2019.
- “Sharpeville.” South African History Online, undated.
- “EDITOR’S NOTE.” Associated Press, September 19, 1985.
- “Sharpeville Massacre.” Marissa Evans, blackpast.org, February 22, 2009.
- “Eyewitness Accounts of the Sharpeville Massacre 1960.” South African History Online, undated.
- “How the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre Sparked the Birth of International Human Rights Law.” Steven Wheatley, The Conversation, March 20, 2020.
- “The End of South African Apartheid.” Robert Longley, ThoughtCo, June 3, 2020.
- “Survey Shows Ignorance About Big Moments in South Africa’s History – Like the Sharpeville Massacre.” Benjamin Roberts, The Conversation, March 19, 2021.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor