On March 21, 1960, police officers in a black township in South Africa opened fire on a group of people peacefully protesting oppressive pass laws, killing 69. The anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre is remembered the world over every March 21 on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
The Sharpeville Massacre
By Matthew McRae
Apartheid and the pass system
The Sharpeville Massacre occurred in a South Africa that denied the rights and freedoms of anyone who was not considered “white” under a system called “apartheid.”
Apartheid means “apartness” in the Afrikaans language. The concept was endorsed, legalized and promoted by the National Party, which was elected in South Africa in 1948 by a minority, exclusively white electorate.
Apartheid laws placed all South Africans into one of four racial categories: “white/European,” “native/black,” “coloured,” (people of “mixed race”) or “Indian/Asian.” White people – 15 percent of the South African population – stood at the top, wielding power and wealth. Black South Africans – 80 percent of the population – were relegated to the very bottom. Apartheid laws restricted almost every aspect of black South Africans’ lives.
Some of the most racist laws were pass laws, which forced black South Africans to carry a pass at all times. Such laws had existed before apartheid, but under apartheid, they became much worse. The government used the pass laws to control the movement of black South Africans, restricting where they could work and live.
The architects of apartheid
Apartheid was firmly rooted in South Africa’s colonial history. As in Canada and other colonized regions, Indigenous communities were progressively dispossessed of their lands. By the time the National Party (NP) took power, the white minority controlled 92 percent of the land.
The NP emerged from centuries of conflict among Dutch and British colonizers and Indigenous communities. The Party was formed mainly of Afrikaners – descendants of Dutch colonizers – who believed they had a God-given mission to establish white rule in Africa. After the NP was elected, it quickly passed laws to further entrench longstanding practices of segregation and racial oppression.
Resistance and Sharpeville
For years, many South Africans chose to peacefully protest apartheid laws, including the pass laws. In March 1960, a group called the Pan African Congress (PAC) decided to organize a peaceful protest in the black township of Sharpeville. The plan was for protestors to march to the local police station without their passes and ask to be arrested.
On March 21, thousands of South Africans marched to the Sharpeville police station. They gathered in peaceful defiance, refusing to carry their pass books. They chanted freedom songs and shouted, “Down with passes!” Simon Mkutau, who participated in the protest, would later recall, “The atmosphere was cheerful; people were happy, singing and dancing.”1 However, as time went by, more and more police began to appear, along with increasing numbers of armoured vehicles. Military jets began to fly overhead. Then, without warning, the police opened fire on the unarmed crowd. Lydia Mahabuke was there when it happened.
While we were standing there and singing we suddenly saw the police in a row pointing their guns at us. Whilst we were still singing, without any word, without any argument, we just heard the guns being fired.
Mahabuke tried to run but felt something hit her in the back. “After having felt this, I tried to look back. People were falling, scattered. There was blood streaming down my leg. I tried to hobble. I struggled to get home.”2
In total, 69 people were killed and more than 180 people were injured, mostly shot in the back as they fled the violence. A later report would state over 700 bullets had been fired, all by police.3 Afterwards, some witnesses claimed they saw police putting guns and knives in the hands of dead victims, to make it look like the protestors were armed and violent. Others said they saw police mocking people who they found alive. Some even claimed that the police killed the injured where they lay on the ground. Ambulances arrived and took victims to the hospital. In some cases, however, police followed the wounded to the hospital, arrested them and took them to prison. In other cases, the police waited until victims had healed somewhat, then arrested them.4
After the arrests, everyone was afraid to talk about the tragedy. “In the days after the shootings, nothing happened,” said Albert Mbongo, who participated in the protest and managed to escape without injury.5
Nobody dared say anything, because if you did you were arrested. I couldn’t even attend the burial, because only women and children were allowed there.
Away from Sharpeville, however, many people did express their outrage both inside and outside South Africa. To protest the massacre, Chief Albert Luthuli, the President-General of the African National Congress (ANC) burned his own pass. Nelson Mandela and other ANC members also burned their passes in solidarity. Shortly afterwards, on March 30, approximately 30,000 protesters marched to Cape Town to protest the shootings.6
The international response to the massacre was swift and unanimous. Many countries around the world condemned the atrocity. On April 1, the United Nations (UN) Security Council passed a resolution condemning the killings and calling for the South African government to abandon its policy of apartheid. A month later, the UN General Assembly declared that apartheid was a violation of the UN Charter. This was the first time the UN had discussed apartheid.7 Six years later, as a direct result of the Sharpeville Massacre, the UN declared March 21 to be the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
After Sharpeville, South Africa’s government had become increasingly isolated, but the government refused to abandon its policies of apartheid and racial discrimination. First, the government declared a state of emergency and detained around 2,000 people. Then, on April 8, 1960, both the ANC and PAC were banned – it became illegal to be a member of these organizations.
Many members of both organizations decided to go underground. Nelson Mandela was among those who chose to become outlaws. He would later say, “We believe in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that ‘the will of the people shall be the basis of authority of the government,’ and for us to accept the banning was the equivalent of accepting the silencing of Africans for all time.”8
Mandela and others no longer felt they could defeat apartheid peacefully. Both the PAC and the ANC formed armed wings and began a military struggle against the government. Many long years of struggle and suffering lay ahead – but Sharpeville was the beginning of the end for apartheid. Prakash Diar, a South African human rights lawyer, explains: “The whole world was outraged at what the police had done. On March 21, 1960, the isolation of South Africa started.
It took a long time, but the isolation and boycott of South Africa slowly started, because what they were practicing was inhumane and unjust.
The eyes of the world would turn to Sharpeville again years later. During the 1980s, Diar would defend six people unjustly charged with murder by the apartheid government. The five men and one woman would become known as the Sharpeville Six – their case would attract international attention, once again putting Sharpeville on the world stage and exposing the inhumanity of the apartheid government.9
In December 1996, two years after the end of apartheid, South Africa enacted a new constitution that enshrined the rights and freedoms of all peoples. It was signed by President Nelson Mandela in the town of Sharpeville, very close to where the massacre had happened. In South Africa, March 21 is now known as Human Rights Day.
You can learn more about Sharpeville and the struggle against apartheid in the Museum exhibition Mandela: Struggle for Freedom.
- 1 Lodge, Tom, Sharpeville: An Apartheid Massacre and its Consequences (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 4.
- 2 Ibid, 10.
- 3 Venter, Sahm, Exploring Our National Days: Human Rights Day 21 March(Auckland Park: Jacanda Media, 2007), 22.
- 4 Lodge, Tom, Sharpeville: An Apartheid Massacre and its Consequences, 13-14.
- 5 Ibid, 17.
- 6 The Road to Democracy in South Africa: Volume 1 [1960-1970] (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2010), 239.
- 7 Dubow, Sam, Apartheid 1948-1994, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 83.
- 8 Asmal, Kader, David Chidester and Wilmot James, éd., Nelson Mandela in his Own Words: From Freedom to the Future, London, Abacus, 2013, p. 30.
- 9 You can read the story of the Sharpeville Six in Prakash Diar’s book, The Sharpeville Six (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1990).