Sharpeville massacre

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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 the Pass laws, a crowd of about 5,000 to 7,000 black African protesters went to the police station. The South African Police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people. Sources disagree as to the behaviour of the crowd; some state that the crowd was peaceful,[1] 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.[2] In present-day South Africa, 21 March is celebrated as a public holiday in honour of human rights and to commemorate the Sharpeville massacre.

Preceding events[edit]

Black South Africans were traditionally subject to pass laws intended to control and direct their movement and employment since the nineteenth century. Under the nation's predominantly Afrikaner government, the increasing number of black residents in urban districts were subject to influx control measures. Individuals over sixteen were compelled to carry passbooks, which contained an identity card, employment and influx authorisation from a labour bureau, name of employer and address, and details of personal history.[3] Leading up to the Sharpeville massacre, the National Party administration under the leadership of Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd used these laws to enforce greater racial segregation[2] and, in 1959-1960, extended them to include women.[4]:pp.14,528 From the 1960s, the pass laws were the primary instrument used by the state to detain and harass its political opponents.[4]:p.163

In 1961 the African National Congress (ANC) prepared to initiate a campaign of protests against pass laws. These protests were to begin on 31 March 1960, but the rival Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) decided to pre-empt the ANC by launching its own campaign ten days earlier, on 21 March, because they believed that the ANC could not win the campaign.[5][6]


On March 21, a group of between 5,000 and 10,000 people converged on the local police station in the township of Sharpeville, offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying their passbooks.[7] The Sharpeville police were not completely unprepared for the demonstration, as they had already been forced to drive smaller groups of more militant activists away the previous night.[8]

Many of the civilians present attended to support the protest, but there is evidence that the PAC also used intimidating means to draw the crowd there, including the cutting of telephone lines into Sharpeville, the distribution of pamphlets telling people not to go to work on the day, and coercion of bus drivers and commuters.[4]:p.534

By 10:00, a large crowd had gathered, and the atmosphere was initially peaceful and festive. Fewer than 20 police officers were present in the station at the start of the protest. Later the crowd grew to about 20,000,[2] and the mood was described as "ugly",[2] prompting about 130 police reinforcements, supported by four Saracen armoured personnel carriers, to be rushed in. The police were armed with firearms, including Sten submachine guns and Lee–Enfield rifles. There was no evidence that anyone in the gathering was armed with anything other than rocks.[2]

F-86 Sabre jets and Harvard Trainers approached to within a hundred feet of the ground, flying low over the crowd in an attempt to scatter it. The protestors responded by hurling a few stones (striking three policemen) and menacing the police barricades. Tear gas proved ineffectual, and policemen elected to repel these advances with their batons.[8] At about 13:00 the police tried to arrest a protestor, resulting in a scuffle, and the crowd surged forward.[2] The shooting began shortly thereafter.[2]

Death and injury toll[edit]

The official figure is that 69 people were killed, including 8 women and 10 children, and 180 injured, including 31 women and 19 children. Many were shot in the back as they turned to flee.[9]

Reasons for firing[edit]

Police reports in 1960 claimed that young and inexperienced police officers panicked and opened fire spontaneously, setting off a chain reaction that lasted about forty seconds. It is likely that the police were nervous as two months before the massacre nine constables had been assaulted and killed under similar circumstances at Cato Manor. In addition, nearly all policemen present had received no previous training regarding the control of mob disturbances. Most of them had already been coping with the situation for over twenty-four hours without respite.[8] Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar, the commanding officer of the police reinforcements at Sharpeville, said in his revealing statement that "the native mentality does not allow them to gather for a peaceful demonstration. For them to gather means violence."[9] He also denied giving any order to fire and stated that he would not have done so.

Other evidence given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission 38 years later in 1998 by two of the victims suggested "a degree of deliberation in the decision to open fire".[4]:p.537


Painting depicting victims of the massacre

The uproar among South Africa's black population was immediate, and the following week saw demonstrations, protest marches, strikes, and riots around the country. On 30 March 1960, the government declared a state of emergency, detaining more than 18,000 people, including prominent anti-apartheid activists who were known as members of the Congress Alliance.[citation needed]

A storm of international protest followed the Sharpeville shootings, including sympathetic demonstrations in many countries[10][11] and condemnation by the United Nations. On 1 April 1960, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 134. Sharpeville marked a turning point in South Africa's history; the country found itself increasingly isolated in the international community. The event also played a role in South Africa's departure from the Commonwealth of Nations in 1961.[citation needed]

The Sharpeville massacre led to the banning of the PAC and ANC as illegal organizations. The massacre was one of the catalysts for a shift from passive resistance to armed resistance by these organisations. The foundation of Poqo, the military wing of the PAC, and Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, followed shortly afterwards.[citation needed]


Since 1994, 21 March has been commemorated as Human Rights Day in South Africa.[12]

Sharpeville was the site selected by then-President Nelson Mandela for the signing into law of the Constitution of South Africa on 10 December 1996.[citation needed]

In 1998, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) found that the police actions constituted "gross human rights violations in that excessive force was unnecessarily used to stop a gathering of unarmed people."[4]:p.537

On 21 March 2002, the 42nd anniversary of the massacre, a memorial was opened by former President Nelson Mandela as part of the Sharpeville Human Rights Precinct.[13]

International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination[edit]

UNESCO marks March 21 as the yearly International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in memory of the massacre.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ McKay, John P.; Hill, Bennett D.; Buckler, John; Ebrey, Patricia Buckley; Beck, Roger B.; Crowston, Clare Haru; Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. A History of World Societies: From 1775 to Present . Eighth edition. Volume C – From 1775 to the Present. (2009). Bedford/St. Martin's: Boston/New York.1950s, blacks--and their coloured, white, and Asian allies--were staging large-scale peaceful protests. A turning point came in 1960, when police at Sharpeville fired into a peaceful crowd of demonstrators and killed sixty-nine blacks" (1010).
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "The Sharpeville Massacre". Time Magazine. 4 April 1960. Retrieved 15 December 2006. 
  3. ^ Kaplan, Irving. Area Handbook for the Republic of South Africa. p. 603. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, Volume 3, Chapter 6 (PDF). 28 October 1998. pp. 531–537. Retrieved 30 October 2014. 
  5. ^ Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Sharpeville Massacre, The Origin of South Africa's Human Rights Day". Retrieved 15 December 2006. 
  6. ^ [1][dead link]
  7. ^ Remember Sharpeville at South African History
  8. ^ a b c Thomas McGhee, Charles C.; N/A, N/A, eds. (1989). The plot against South Africa (2nd ed.). Pretoria: Varama Publishers. ISBN 0-620-14537-4. 
  9. ^ a b Reeves, Rt. Reverend Ambrose. "The Sharpeville Massacre - A watershed in South Africa". Retrieved 15 July 2007. 
  10. ^ "Outside South Africa there were widespread reactions to Sharpeville in many countries which in many cases led to positive action against South Africa".—Reeves Rt-Rev A.The Sharpeville Massacre--a Watershed in South Africa
  11. ^ E.g., "[I]mmediately following the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, over 1000 students demonstrated in Sydney against the apartheid system".—Barcan A. Student activists at Sydney University 1960-1967 in History of Education Review, 1 January 2007
  12. ^ "Public Holidays Act, Act No 36 of 1994" (PDF). 2012-09-18. Retrieved 2014-04-17. 
  13. ^ "Sharpeville Memorial, Theunis Kruger Street, Dicksonville, Sharpville - ABLEWiki". Retrieved 2014-04-17. 

Coordinates: 26°41′18″S 27°52′19″E / 26.68833°S 27.87194°E / -26.68833; 27.87194