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Sharpeville massacre

The Sharpeville massacre was an event which occurred on 21 March 1960, at the police station in the South African township of Sharpeville in Transvaal (today part of Gauteng).

Sharpeville massacre
Sharpeville Massacre Graves, Phelindaba Cemetery, Sharpeville, Vereenegining, South Africa.jpg
The row of graves of the 69 people killed by police at the Sharpeville Police Station on 21 March 1960.
LocationSharpeville, South Africa
Date21 March 1960; 59 years ago (21 March 1960)
Assailants South African Police

After a day of demonstrations against pass laws, a crowd of about 5,000 to 7,000 protesters went to the police station. The South African Police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people and injuring 180 others. 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. There were 249 casualties in total, including 29 children. Many were shot in the back as they fled.[1]

The massacre was photographed by photographer Ian Berry, who initially believed the police were firing blanks.[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.

Life in Sharpeville before the massacreEdit

Sharpeville was first built in 1943 to replace Topville, a nearby township that suffered overcrowding where illnesses like pneumonia were widespread. Due to the illness, removals from Topville finally began in 1958 when increases in land values meant remains of Topville could be sold at huge profits to the whites. Approximately 10,000 Africans were forcibly removed to Sharpeville. Sharpeville had a high rate of unemployment as well as high crime rates. There were also youth problems because of how many children joined gangs and were affiliated with crimes instead of schools. Furthermore, a new police station was created, in which the police were energetic to check passes, deporting illegal residents, and raiding illegal shebeens. PAC’s main tactic during the demonstration was to forcibly prevent bus drivers from taking passengers to work.[3]

Preceding eventsEdit

Demonstrators discarding their passbooks to protest apartheid, 1960

South African governments since the eighteenth century had enacted measures to restrict the flow of black South Africans into cities. Pass laws intended to control and direct their movement and employment were updated in the 1950s. Under the country's National Party government, black residents in urban districts were subject to influx control measures. Individuals over sixteen were required 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.[4] 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[5] and, in 1959–1960, extended them to include women.[6]:pp.14,528 From the 1960s, the pass laws were the primary instrument used by the state to detain and harass its political opponents.[6]:p.163

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), led by Robert Sobukwe, 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.[7][8]

In 1952, the Native Laws Amendment Act was passed, which normalized the use of passes by Africans. Instead of carrying pass books, Africans were told to carry reference books, which would contain their photograph, employment record, and personal information. Moreover, if the reference books were not carried then it would be considered a criminal offense. On March 21, 1960, the ANC called for a series of anti-pass law protests. (Westhuizen)[9]

In 1958, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) was formed out of dissatisfaction due to the internationalist approach to the African National Congress (ANC) as well as the imprisonment of many ANC leaders. Robert Sobukwe became the leader of the PAC and was also the editor of the African journal called Beware that advocated protest and non-cooperation aimed towards the whites. However, he was influenced and attracted by the Africanist wing and influenced by Anton Lembede. (Brown)[10]

The PAC felt that the ANC had betrayed the principles by working with other racial groups. The PAC’s philosophy was that it opposed Communism and associated with other racial groups such as the whites. Moreover, the PAC believed that Africans oversaw their own destiny and that they should not be controlled by anyone. Extremists in the PAC said that there was no place for whites or Indians. However, on the other side, the ANC disagreed with PAC’s philosophy and believed that members of all races are welcome. (Brown)[10]

Events at the Sharpeville MassacreEdit

The demonstrations consisted of peaceful protests demanding arrest for not carrying passes; however, the police refused to arrest the crowd due to the large amount of demonstrators. The trigger for the massacre came when a drunken demonstrator named Geelbooi Mofokeng fired a pistol in the air and simultaneously a policeman stumbled, leading for the colleagues of the police to think that a policeman was shot; however, the shot was fired in the air, which did not hurt anyone. The whites police started firing at the crowd. In the massacre, 69 people were killed and 200 were injured, many died later from their wounds. Out of the people that were either injured or shot, 70% of the people were shot in the back as they were running away from the firing. (Zambian)[3]


On 21 March, 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.[11] The Sharpeville police were not completely unprepared for the demonstration, as they had already driven smaller groups of more militant activists away the previous night.[12]

PAC actively organized to increase turnout to the demonstration, distributing pamphlets and appearing in person to urge people not to go to work on the day of the protest. Many of the civilians present attended voluntarily to support the protest, but there is evidence that the PAC also used coercive means to draw the crowd there, including the cutting of telephone lines into Sharpeville, and preventing bus drivers from driving their routes.[6]: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,[5] and the mood was described as "ugly",[5] 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.[5]

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 protesters responded by hurling stones (striking three policemen) and rushing the police barricades. Police officers attempted to use tear gas to repel these advances, but it proved ineffectual, and the police fell back on the use of their batons.[12] At about 13:00 the police tried to arrest a protester, and the crowd surged forward.[5] The shooting began shortly thereafter.[5]

Death and injury tollEdit

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, causing some to be paralyzed.[1]

Pretext for firingEdit

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 quick to fire as two months before the massacre, nine constables had been assaulted and killed, some disembowelled, during a raid at Cato Manor.[12] In addition, few of the policemen present had received public order training. Some of them had been on duty for over twenty-four hours without respite.[12] Some insight into the mindset of those on the police force was provided by Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar, the commanding officer of the police reinforcements at Sharpeville, who said in his statement that "the native mentality does not allow them to gather for a peaceful demonstration. For them to gather means violence."[1] 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 "the evidence of Commission deponents reveals a degree of deliberation in the decision to open fire at Sharpville and indicates that the shooting was more than the result of inexperienced and frightened police officers losing their nerve."[6]:p.538


There were several factors that caused the massacre:

  • The police were on the edge because nine members had been killed in riots in Cato Manor.
  • The senior police officers there gave no clear instructions about the crowd or what to do.
  • It was also a hot day, and the standoff lasted more than five hours, both of which made people impatient and tired.
  • Tsolo, who led the crowd, was arrested and so it had no leader and no instructions to follow.
  • The protesters refused to listen to the police, who had asked them to move to a football field.
  • The conflict and the racist ideology of apratheid is another factor.(Humprehy)[13]


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[14][15] 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 contributed to the banning of the PAC and ANC as illegal organisations. 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]

Not all reactions were negative: embroiled in the Civil Rights Movement, the Mississippi House of Representatives voted a resolution supporting the South African government "for its steadfast policy of segregation and the [staunch] adherence to their traditions in the face of overwhelming external agitation."[16][17]


Since 1994, 21 March has been commemorated as Human Rights Day in South Africa.[18]

Sharpeville was the site selected by President Nelson Mandela for the signing into law of the Constitution of South Africa on 10 December 1996.[19]

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."[6]: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.[20]

The aftermath and response to SharpevilleEdit

A state of emergency was declared on March 30 seeing the arrest of 10,000 people, including Mandela and some still enmeshed in Treason Trial. (Humprehy)[13]

A lack of trust was established between the police and the people. Police arrested protesters in hospitals and leaders were arrested in detention cells and police officers accused of putting rocks and weapons in hands of dead. The government appointed the Wessels Commission of Inquiry to investigate the massacre. Africans were too intimidated to testify as they were told what to say by the PAC. Many were reluctant to interview Africans and ignored suggestions that police tampered the evidence. One of the international repercussions was that under the Security Council Resolution 134, the UN resolution condemned the South African government for the Sharpeville Massacre, blaming shootings on the system of Apartheid and asserting that violence would continue till the concept of Apartheid ended (Forty). The Sharpeville massacre is considered to be the turning point of Apartheid in South Africa because it shocked and alerted the world of what going on in South Africa in the name of Apartheid (Humprehy). However, some people also believe that it was merely an event, such as one Historian Curtis Lemay: “In the event Sharpeville was merely an incident, a turning point at which no-one turned” (Lemay). The state could no longer justify Apartheid as any king of benign system, nor tolerate anything but the timidest resistance and robust Reponses by the government galvanized criticism elsewhere, when racism was diminishing in other countries and former colonies were gaining independence. The Sharpeville massacre affected 216 families and 500 children and this massacre is not discussed in Africa as to protect from politicization and militancy. Nevertheless, there is also a debate on how shock the international community and their opinion was on the Sharpeville massacre. (Sharpeville) [21]

International Day for the Elimination of Racial DiscriminationEdit

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

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c Reeves, Rt. Reverend Ambrose. "The Sharpeville Massacre – A watershed in South Africa". Retrieved 15 July 2007.
  2. ^ Macdonald, Fiona. "The photos that changed history – Ian Berry; Sharpeville Massacre". Retrieved 12 December 2018.
  3. ^ a b [ "Zambian Commemorates Sharpeville Massacre"] Check |url= value (help). 1 No. 5. 2013: 1–10. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. ^ Kaplan, Irving. Area Handbook for the Republic of South Africa. p. 603.
  5. ^ a b c d e f "The Sharpeville Massacre". Time Magazine. 4 April 1960. Retrieved 15 December 2006.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Sharpeville Massacre, The Origin of South Africa's Human Rights Day". Retrieved 15 December 2006.
  8. ^ [1] Archived 28 March 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Westhuizen, Christi van Der. "On the Ground". Missing or empty |url= (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  10. ^ a b Brown, Garrett (1 January 2018). "African National Congress". The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics and International Relations. Missing or empty |url= (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  11. ^ Remember Sharpeville at South African History
  12. ^ a b c d 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.
  13. ^ a b Humphrey, Tyler (1960). [ "Sharpeville and After"] Check |url= value (help). Africa Today. 7 No. 3: 5–8.
  14. ^ "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 Archived 19 July 2012 at
  15. ^ 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
  16. ^ "What they commend in Mississippi". Chicago Tribune. 15 April 1960. Archived from the original on 20 July 2017. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  17. ^ "South Africa Praised". The Citizens' Council. 5 (7). April 1960. p. 1. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  18. ^ "Public Holidays Act, Act No 36 of 1994" (PDF). 18 September 2012. Retrieved 17 April 2014.
  19. ^ "Mandela signs SA Constitution into law". South African History Online. 10 December 1996. Retrieved 3 May 2019.
  20. ^ "Sharpeville Memorial, Theunis Kruger Street, Dicksonville, Sharpville – ABLEWiki". Retrieved 17 April 2014.
  21. ^ "Sharpeville Massacre". Commission of Enquiry into the Occurrences at Sharpeville (and Other Places) on the 21st March 1960 – via UCLA Library Collection (IDEP).

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