Painting of the Sharpeville massacre, which took place 21 March 1960, Sharpeville, South Africa, currently located in the South African Consulate in London. Godfrey Rubens (painter and photographer)
The shootings at Sharpeville marked a turning point. Not only did it highlight the wanton violence of the oppressors, but it removed any belief of the possibility of making a dent in the system by means of protest politics alone. Following so quickly after the crushing of the Pondo Revolt by purely military action, the Sharpeville and Langa shootings broke the belief that a nonviolent revolution was possible. Furthermore, the mass arrests and detentions that followed the declaration of a State of Emergency, and the holding of thousands of people without trial, destroyed any hope that the legal system could be used to halt police repression. It was evident that the long chain of legal victories in the courts had been broken and that government had finally managed to impose a rule by direct police terror, brooking no hindrance from legal obstacles. It was also clear that the previous decade had been used effectively by the Nationalist Party to remove its White critics from the army, police, and administration and consolidate its hold on all the organs of power. The pockets of opposition among Whites were rendered inactive, although the opposition press was still allowed some room for criticism beneath the heavy blanket of censorship. — Ben Turok, Strategic Problems in South Africa’s Liberation Struggle: A Critical Analysis (Richmond, British Columbia, Canada: LSM [Liberation Support Movement] Information Center/LSM Press, 1974): 39.
In South Africa, March 21st is celebrated as a public holiday, commemorating the Sharpeville massacre and in honor of human rights. What follows is culled from several different sources about the events of that day, including the immediate historical and political background and context, as well as the lessons drawn by leaders of the liberation struggle against apartheid in South Africa. (The embedded hyperlinks at the beginning of several paragraphs provide the specific sources.) I leave the interested reader with a comparatively short list of suggested reading material for understanding the Sharpeville massacre and its varied effects on both National Party government (which ruled continuously from 4 June 1948 until 9 May 1994) and the protracted struggle against apartheid both within and outside South Africa.
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“The Sharpeville massacre … occurred on 21 March 1960, at the police station in the South African township of Sharpeville in Transvaal (today part of Gauteng). After a day of demonstrations against pass laws, a crowd of about 5,000 to 7,000 black protesters went to the police station. The South African Police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people [‘and, according to the official inquest, 180 people seriously wounded’]. [‘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.’] Sources disagree as to the behaviour of the crowd; some state that the crowd was peaceful, while others state that the crowd had been hurling stones at the police, and that the shooting started when the crowd started advancing toward the fence around the police station.”
“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.’”
“For many people in the world, in what was fast becoming the age of instant communication, the Sharpeville massacre was the first time they became aware of what sort of government South Africa had. In the West, many people had only vaguely heard of South Africa. Even in Britain, where there was a comparatively large number of people who had visited South Africa or had relatives there, mention of South Africa did not conjure up an image in the mind of the average newspaper-reader much different from that of, say, Australia. Sharpeville changed all that. The South African government was exposed to international view as a ruthless and brutal administration which shot people who claimed what were being conceded in other parts of the world as their fundamental rights. [….] When the police fired on African demonstrators at Sharpeville, the result was worldwide condemnation of South Africa, a loss of business confidence as foreign investors became nervous, and the imposition of a state of emergency by the Pretoria government during which 20,000 people were detained.
The government also took the radical step of banning both the PAC [Pan Africanist Congress] and the ANC [African National Congress] under the terms of a new law, the Unlawful Organisations Act. They were unable to function legally inside South Africa from that date until 2 February 1990, when the Communist Party too was unbanned. Two days before the banning order, Oliver Tambo, a former General–Secretary of the ANC, slipped out of the country to set up an external mission, under orders from the National Executive. His task was to canvass international support. Other ANC leaders went underground inside the country. [….]
Apart from the overwhelming consideration that their organisation was banned in 1960, leaving them no possibility of lawful political action, there were a number of factors compelling both the ANC and Communist Party leaders to contemplate the use of violence. The rest of Africa was receiving its freedom, so they could be sure of support in the newly emerging nations to the north. In Algeria, armed nationalists were nearing the climax of their long and bitter war against France in conditions not dissimilar to those of South Africa. And those ANC leaders who, like Mandela, Sisulu, Tambo, Mbeki and many others, came from the Transkei, were deeply affected by the rural rebellion which broke out there in 1960. Peasant leaders were asking the ANC for guns and the ANC was embarrassed by its inability to satisfy them. Some sources also maintain that the turn to violence, on the part of the Communist Party at least, was motivated by the knowledge that another organisation, the National Committee of Liberation, was making preparations to begin sabotage operations. NCL members, including a former member of the Communist Party, Marty Berman, had approached the Party with a suggestion that the two organisations should work together in a sabotage campaign. The Party refused but, conscious of the danger of being outflanked on its left, determined to start its own campaign of violence.
In the end, the decision to launch a campaign of sabotage was taken on a personal basis as a result of consultations between friends and comrades in mid-1961. That is, it was not a result of a resolution by any organised body of either the ANC or the SACP [South African Communist Party] but only of groups of members meeting informally. In fact, a meeting of the ANC’s National Executive Committee in June 1961debated the question of armed struggle but took no position on it. The National Executive nevertheless gave its blessing to those ANC members who wished to join the new guerrilla organisation whose foundation was being discussed in ANC and Communist Party circles. [….]
The new organisation was dubbed Umkhonto we Sizwe, ‘Spear of the Nation,’ and was known to insiders as MK. It was [largely] autonomous, drawing its membership from both the ANC and the SACP but operationally dependent on neither.”
“In Cape Town, where PAC task forces were used with great effectiveness in mobilizing an African work stoppage after Sharpeville, youthful PAC supporters late revived the idea of executing political ‘jobs.’ Banding into the amorphous reconstruction of the PAC known as Poqo (a shortened version of the Xhosa name for PAC, UmAfrika Poqpo, or ‘Africa alone’), they had, by mid-1963, murdered a handful of whites, some dozen or more African policemen and police informers, and—in a futile effort to stop the implementation of the unpopular government plan for rural ‘Bantu Authorities’—a number of Transkeian chiefs and headmen. Many of the men responsible for these acts were caught, and some were executed. Poqo throughout made no attempt to project any defined set of objectives or ideological principles; it spoke only the language of [Sorelian-like?] action.” (A more nuanced if not sympathetic account of Poqo is found in the Tom Lodge title below)
- Cherry, Janet. Spear of the Nation (Umkhonto weSizwe): South Africa’s Liberation Army, 1960s-1990s. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2011.
- Ellis, Stephen and Tsepo Sechaba [the pen name of Oyama Mabandla]. Comrades against Apartheid: The ANC and the South African Communist Party in Exile. London: James Currey/Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992.
- Gerhart, Gail M. Black Power in South Africa: The Evolution of an Ideology. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978.
- Kasrils, Ronnie. ‘Armed and Dangerous’—My Undercover Struggle Against Apartheid. Oxford, UK: Heinemann Educational, 1993.
- Lodge, Tom. Black Politics in South Africa since 1945. New York: Longman, 1983.
- Roux, Edward. Time Longer Than Rope: A History of the Black Man’s Struggle for Freedom in South Africa. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2nd ed., 1964.
- Turok, Ben. Strategic Problems in South Africa’s Liberation Struggle: A Critical Analysis. Richmond, British Columbia, Canada: LSM [Liberation Support Movement] Information Center/LSM Press, 1974.
- Turok, Ben. The ANC and the Turn to Armed Struggle, 1950-1970. Johannesburg: Jacana Media, 2010.
- Wilson, Richard A. The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Legitimizing the Post-Apartheid State. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
For further reading and research, please see my bibliography on “South African Liberation Struggles.”