The Massacre at Sharpeville, the township outside Vereeniging on the banks of the Vaal River, on March 21, 1960 made headlines throughout the world. Scores of people died and three times as many were injured, which highlighted the plight of Africans in South Africa to the world in a way it never had been before. The PAC claim the day as their most successful political campaign, while the rest of the South African political sphere mark it as a tragedy.


Vereeniging is the site of the signing of the treaty that ended the Anglo-Boer War. British victory lead to the Union of South Africa in 1910, and the last hope of African rights being recognised without resistance, fading. The African National Congress was formed in 1909. Leading up to the Second World War, a large contingent in the ruling United Party were unhappy about having to support Britain: their sympathies were very much on the side of Adolf Hitler and his radical ideas about racial supremacy.

After the war, a group broke away, calling themselves the Herstigte Nationale Party (Reformed or Pure National Party). In later years this party would go through revision many times, with a group breaking away and calling themselves the National Party, which in post-apartheid years would affirmed their aboutface on policy with the name New National Party. The Herstigte Nationale Party contested the 1948 elections and came out in front. Immediately they set about legislating their policies. These are discussed further elsewhere.

Important in this context are the formation of the Bantustans and the Pass Laws. The Bantustans were illegitimate"independent homelands and states" which operated under much the same mechanisms as the present day Palestinian states. Under the Pass Laws, all Africans were required to obtain a permit to live outside the Bantustan to which they were assigned (based on home language, or if you will, tribe). The government had the discretion to nominate the place where the person could legally reside, which depending on the mood of the government official, was at times different to that of the person's spouse.

All Africans over the age of 16 were legally required to hold a Pass, and Passes to live outside the Bantustans were only granted for employment or employment seeking purposes. Employment seeking Passes were only valid for 14 days, and if caught with a lapsed Pass people were deported to the Homelands or imprisoned. Sentences were served on prison farms under barbaric conditions.

African prisoners on the potato prison farms in Bethel in the former Eastern Transvaal (Mpumalanga) wore nothing but hessian sacks and slept on damp cement floors. With bare hands and feet, they worked the potato fields from dawn to dusk, being whipped by jailers on horseback. Once a day they ate a meal of half-cooked dried maize ("pap") with no protein. Many died from disease or torture before their two to six month sentences, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, were complete.

Political Climate

The African National Congress (ANC) was the oldest and most established organisation of African resistance. In its early days, its leaders were Africanist - Africa for the Africans, deportation for the settler Europeans - but by the late 1950's many of them had revised their political ways to include all South Africans in their dreams for the future. The leadership was divided over the future of the struggle. Thus far it had been peaceful, thanks to the influence of Gandhi who spent many years in South Africa, and campaign of mass action -- boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience and non-cooperation -- was planned, kicking off with an anti-Pass demonstration in April 1960. Many argued the ineffectiveness of non-violence and proposed the use of violence.

In early 1959, a group of ANC leaders broke away from the party and formed the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, the PAC. They planned to announce their arrival on the political scene by upstaging the ANC's Pass protest with a nationwide strike on March 21, 1960.

As early as 1946, the government had used force against peacefully striking mineworkers in the Witwatersrand. The PAC, under the leadership of 36 year old Robert Sobukwe, made it clear in their door-to-door campaign for support for the action that it was to be a peaceful demonstration. Slogans such as Izwe Lethu iAfrica (Our Land, Africa), and Sobukwe's name were sounding out throughout the country. On March 18, 1960, Sobukwe called a press conference in Johannesburg where he announced the PAC's first phase in their campaign for the liberation of South Africa.

The action called for all Pass-carrying Africans to leave their passes at home, march to police stations and hand themselves over for arrest. Since 1953's Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Native Documents Act, the Pass book had been called the "reference book", but the changes were in name only. Through its action, the PAC sought, not only to upstage the ANC, but also to bring down apartheid. With enough of the labour force behind bars, South African industry would grind to a halt, holding the government to ransom. It was as idealistic a notion as Africanism.

March 21, 1960

On the eve of the event, Sobukwe reiterated to the leadership the importance of observing absolute non-violence. Ironic given that the organisation had foundered itself on the idea that non-violence had passed its sell-by date. Nevertheless, the bloody end to the day was never intended or solicited by either the PAC or the demonstrators. Many of the protests around the country went off without a hitch.

In Langa and Nyanga in Cape Town, five people where shot dead by police and in Vanderbijl Park, the death toll was two. The place where things really got nasty was Sharpeville, the location on the outskirts of Vereeniging.

The PAC branch at Sharpeville was chaired by Nyakale Tsolo. He and his members approached nearly all the houses and the men's hostel in the township ahead of the strike on the Monday. On the morning, not a single bus left Sharpeville to take workers into Vereeniging. PAC task force members started lining up marchers in the streets before daybreak -- the time they would usually be leaving for work. The march on the police station had been planned, with prearranged meeting points for the different groups of marchers. At the final assembly point, the marchers numbered more than 10,000 men, women and children, chanting slogans and singing freedom songs.

Izwe lethu iAfrica - Our land, Africa

Awaphele ampasti - Down with passes

Sobukwe Sikhokhle - Lead us Sobukwe

Forward to Independence, Tomorrow the United States of Africa

When the marches arrived at the police station in Sharpeville, they met a heavily-armed group of police outside, many atop British-made Saracen armoured cars. Tsolo was at the front with other members of the Sharpeville Branch Executive, putting into action the PAC's Leaders in Front policy. Tsolo asked the commanding policeman to arrest them for refusal to carry Passes. Initially the policeman refused.

The chanting and singing continued, which would have been extremely intimidating for the police who would have been conscious that should the crowd turn nasty, their weapons would not save them. They needn't have worried about the crowd, but amid the chanting and the inspired singing, with their backs to the police station walls, they would have needed much convincing. Around 11am, they relented and arrested the leaders.

News of the Sharpeville success had spread to other regions and journalists were rushing over from Johannesburg. By the time they got there, they really had a story to report. The leaderless crowd had upped the volume of their songs and chants, and eventually one of the policemen had cracked. He fired and his fellow officers followed suit. Within two minutes, 705 bullets had been fired and the crowd had dispersed and scores of dead and wounded lay bleeding on the ground. At the end of the day there were 69 dead and 186 wounded. Most of the dead had died from bullets entering their backs.


Carel de Wet, MP for Vanderbijl Park and former member of apartheid implementer Vorster's cabinet, spoke from the Court of St James where he was serving his second term as Ambassador: Why did the police kill only two kaffirs in my constituency?

The Minister of Justice temporarily suspended the Pass Laws and the government imposed a nationwide State of Emergency and introduced legislation banning the PAC and the ANC. 18,000 anti-apartheid activists, black, coloured and white, were arrested and detained around the country and Sobukwe and his peers were put on trial. They were convicted and imprisoned for 3 years. In 1963, however, the government introduced what became known as the Sobukwe Clause, allowing them to detain people after the conclusion of their sentences. They only used the clause once. Sobukwe was eventually released -- into house arrest in Kimberley -- in 1969. He died, still under house arrest, in 1978.Stanley Motjuwadi recalled in the November 22, 1972 edition of Drum magazine:

A day after the Sharpeville shootings I had an interview in Johannesburg's Fort prison with Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe ... He was awaiting trial on a charge of incitement and seemed to have aged overnight. He was depressed and almost at the point of tears - the Sharpeville tragedy had really hit him hard.

The arrival of the journalists on the scene so swiftly (since they were already on their way) meant that for once the South African public got an inkling of what was happening just down the road. In April 1960, at the annual Rand Easter Show, David Pratt, an English-speaking farmer, fired two shots through Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoed's head. Verwoed survived, only to be stabbed to death in the House of Parliament in 1966. Pratt told the magistrate he had done it because Verwoed was leading the country into darkness. Pratt was sent to a mental asylum and never heard from again.

While Verwoed was recuperating from his gunshot wounds, Paul Sauer acted as Prime Minister. The PAC organised a demonstration outside Parliament in Cape Town, which attracted 30,000 demonstrators. Sauer addressed the rally and called for a new book for South Africa, saying that things could not be allowed to slide back to conditions that had created such a crisis as Sharpeville. Sauer was quickly dropped from the cabinet and died a backbencher.

Within in the borders of South Africa, Sharpeville only made things worse for Africans. Internationally, however, things began to change. The Johannesburg Stock Exchange suffered a huge blow, as companies pulled out of South Africa to the tune of £43 million of foreign capital. The United Nations Security Council brought up the question of apartheid for the first time. In April 1960, the Council called on the South African government to "initiate measures aimed at bringing about racial harmony based on equality... and abandon its policies of apartheid and racial discrimination." When the government refused, the international arena turned their backs and South Africa was expelled from the Commonwealth. Only Ian Smith's regime in neighbouring Zimbabwe was less popular.

Further reading: "THE SHARPEVILLE MASSACRE - Its historic significance in the struggle against apartheid" by David M. Sibeko - Available online at



For amnesiac, who told me it was important. D00d, you owe me one Ibrahim.

amnesiac says i'm getting rk2001 to do it - i bloody told her ages ago to do it and she mucks about with the fimbles - i'm gonna have to belt-whoop her now - i hope you're proud

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