50th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre

Sunday was the 50th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, a day now called Human Rights Day, celebrated with rare political unity. According to The Sowetan a service was held at Sharpeville cricket stadium attended by members of the ANC, United Democratic Movement, Democratic Alliance, African People’s Convention, Independent Democrats and Inkatha Freedom Party. Each party had two minutes to deliver speeches. ANC Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said the people had to take ownership of history both as political organisations and members of society. “A common ownership of our history is the basis of nation building and must never be undermined by any interest group based on the subjectivity of race, class or ideology,” he said.
(picture GALLO/GETTY)
The Sharpeville Massacre was a brutal event which shaped South African politics for half a century. White police killed 69 black people and wounded 178 during a demonstration against segregation laws. While the massacre focused world anger on apartheid, it also exacerbated political tensions between the ANC and the breakaway Pan Africanist Congress, which exist to this day.

Sharpeville is a small township serving the white industrial cities of Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging, south of Johannesburg. Itinerant black workers lived in shanty-towns and earned a pittance in nearby coal and steel industries. On 21 March 1960 the PAC organised a peaceful protest against the pass system for black South Africans which limited their movements. PAC was a hardline organisation founded a year earlier as a breakaway from the ANC after the latter instituted its Freedom Charter with a commitment to a non racial South Africa.The pass law protests were originally the ANC’s idea and were due to start on 31 March 1960. On 21 March, about 6000 people converged on Sharpeville police station offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying pass books. A small number of officers inside the station were not worried as the atmosphere was peaceful. But as the crowd grew during the day, it got more tense. Police rushed in 130 reinforcements in Saracen armoured cars. They were supported by sabre jets who buzzed the crowd to scatter them.

When the crowd threw stones, police began making arrests. A fight broke out and the crowd advanced towards the police fence. What happened next is disputed. Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd claimed the protesters shot first – though no arms were found on any of them. The police report later that year said inexperienced and panicky officers opened fire setting off a chain reaction. Evidence at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission 34 years later said the police action was deliberate.

Sixty-nine people died including eight women and 10 children, and over 180 were injured, including 31 women and 19 children. Many were shot in the back. In the following week, enraged blacks across the country held demonstrations, protest marches, strikes and riots. On 30 March the government declared a state of emergency and arrested 20,000 people. The UN condemned the massacre and the UN Security Council passed resolution 134 concerning ”the situation arising out of the large-scale killings of unarmed and peaceful demonstrators against racial discrimination and segregation in the Union of South Africa”. Of the permanent members only Britain and France abstained and foreign investors pulled out of the country. Sharpeville played a crucial part in the gradual isolation of racist South Africa.

The PAC and the ANC were banned leading to the radicalisation of both organisations and the formation of military wings. Author Millard W. Arnold said the ban and heavy-handed crackdown had “welded together three generations of black people united in opposition to apartheid.” South Africa would have to endure 30 more years of pain before Sharpeville could be forgiven, if never forgotten. The TRC would eventually find the police actions constituted “gross human rights violations in that excessive force was unnecessarily used to stop a gathering of unarmed people” but its terms of reference meant no one was charged for the crime. The marginalised PAC (which got 0.27 percent of the electoral vote in 2009) still look back ruefully on Sharpeville and think what might have been.

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