Apartheid South Africa

The Sharpeville Massacre 

On 16 March 1960, Robert Subukwe, leader of the Pan African Congress (a liberation movement or PAC), informed the commissioner of police that his organization would embark on sustained but disciplined non violent campaigns for 5 days, starting on the 21st December.

Two days later he made a press statement. "I have appealed to the African people to make sure that the campaign we are to embark on, must be conducted in good spirit and non violence, I am certain they On 16 March 1960, Robert Subukwe, leader of the Pan African Congress (a liberation movement or PAC), informed the commissioner of police that his organization would embark on sustained but disciplined non violent campaigns for 5 days, starting on the 21st December.

Two days later he made a press statement. "I have appealed to the African people to make sure that the campaign we are to embark on, must be conducted in good spirit and non violence, I am certain they will heed my call. If the other side  (government) so desire we will provide them with ample opportunity to demonstrate to the world how brutal they can be" It only took a few days for Robert to discover how true his words were.

The objective of the march - African men had to leave their Passes at home and present themselves for arrest (A Pass is a document made compulsory by the Apartheid government for all black men and woman to carry so as to restrict their movement in in "white" urban areas). This would result in all the protestors being arrested, prisons would fill up; the country would grind to a halt as no labor would be available, and the pass law would be scrapped.

Liberation however was still far off as the people of Sharpeville were to discover. On the 21st March around 10am a crowd of about 5000 gathered in Sharpeville. At the same time about 4000 people from nearby townships marched to Vanderijl park police station. At Everton about 20000 people marched to the local police station. Brutal baton charges and low flying jets dispersed both groups, leaving one man dead. In Sharpeville people were waving at jets and throwing their hats in the air, they were impressed by the low flying jets and thought it to be an Air force display.

Meanwhile about 300 policeman arrived in Sharpeville to assist the local police as the marches ascended on the police station. A scuffle broke out outside the police station, in the tussle that followed a police officer was pushed over. The front row of the crowd was shoved forward as marches from the back of the crowd, curiously wanted to see what was happening up front.

It was then that police opened fire, without being given a order to do so. Panic gripped the marches. They immediately tried to flee but was unable to do so, due to the massive crowd surrounding them. Press reports later described the scene, "policeman on top of Saracen armoured vehicles swung sten guns in a wide arc, gunning down the crowd. Bodies laid strewn in the road and on the pavement. The wounded fled into backyards and side streets. Children ran like rabbits. One by one the guns stopped". The final toll was 69 dead and 180 had bullet wounds, among them seriously injured.

Amongst the eyewitness accounts later revealed by Tom Petrus who published a book called "My life struggle". Airplanes flew high and then low over the crowd. While the crowd thought it was an air display, little did they know death was near. As the police opened fire, some couldn't believe they were shot, some thought they heard firecrackers. Only when people saw blood and death around them did they realize the police meant business.

The assistant editor of drum magazine Humphrey Tyler, described, "protestors were chanting "Izwe Lethu" which means "Our land" or gave the thumbs up "freedom salute, and shouted "Afrika" nobody were afraid, in actual fact they were in a cheerful mood. There were plenty of police and more ammunition than uniforms. A Pan Africanist leader approached us and said his organization and the marches were against violence and were demonstrating peacefully. Suddenly I heard chilling cries of "Izwe Lethu" it sounded mainly like the voices of women. Hands went up in the famous black power salute. That is when the shooting started. We heard the clatter of machine guns one after the other. The protestors thought they were firing blanks or warning shots. One woman was hit about 10 yards away from our car, as she fell to the ground  her companion went back to assist, he thought she had stumbled. Then he tried to pick her up, as he turned her around he saw her chest had been blown away from the hail of bullets. He looked at the blood on his hand and screamed "God she had been shot". Hundreds of kids were running like wild rabbits, some of them were gunned down. Shooting only stooped when no living protestor was in sight".

The police later claimed they were in extreme danger because the crowed was stoning them. The also said that the crowd were armed with weapons which littered the compound when they left.

Photographs taken by the press later revealed that protestors was unarmed and only hats, bicycles, shoes and other personal belongings were left among the dead and injured bodies. At that time no one dared to testify against the apartheid police.

News of the Sharpeville "massacre" was received with horror in South Africa and the world. Albert Luthuli called on all Africans to observe 28th March as a day of mourning; this resulted in a massive stay at home on the day. White South Africans were in a state of panic, they quickly armed themselves to the teeth. Gun shops all over the country were quickly sold out. Share prices on the Johannesburg stock exchange plummeted as investors began selling off stocks.

The following day foreign consulates were flooded with enquiries about emigration by "white" South Africans. The Apartheid government introduced legislation to outlaw the ANC and PAC. Serious rioting now shook townships nationwide. All police leave was cancelled as patrols were stepped up.

Although a commission of enquiry was held into the events at Sharpeville, what actually happened is still subject to a dispute. Only a few facts came to light, none of the police involved in the massacre were convicted.

 

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