Sharpeville massacre

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The Sharpeville massacre occurred on 21 March 1960 at the police station in the township of Sharpeville in the then Transvaal Province of the then Union of South Africa (today part of Gauteng). After demonstrating against anti-black pass laws, a crowd of about 7,000 black protesters went to the police station. 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 mood had turned "ugly". The South African Police (SAP) opened fire on the crowd when the crowd started advancing toward the fence around the police station; tear-gas had proved ineffectual. There were 249 victims in total, including 29 children, with 69 people killed and 180 injured. Some were shot in the back as they fled.[1]

Sharpeville massacre
Part of apartheid
The row of graves of the 69 people killed by police at the Sharpeville Police Station on 21 March 1960.
LocationSharpeville, Transvaal Province, South Africa
Date21 March 1960; 64 years ago (1960-03-21)
Assailants South African Police

The massacre was photographed by photographer Ian Berry, who initially thought the police were firing blanks.[2] In present-day South Africa, 21 March is commemorated as a public holiday in honour of human rights and to commemorate the Sharpeville massacre.

Life in Sharpeville before the massacre


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 began in 1958. 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 many children joined gangs and were affiliated with crimes instead of schools. Furthermore, a new police station was created, from which the police were energetic to check passes, deporting illegal residents, and raiding illegal shebeens.[3]

Preceding events

Demonstrators discarding their passbooks to protest apartheid, 1960

South African governments since the eighteenth century had enacted measures to restrict the flow of African 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, African 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 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.



On 21 March 1960, a group of between 5,000 and 10,000 people converged on the local police station, 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 driven smaller groups of more militant activists away the previous night.[8]

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 stones.[5]

F-86 Sabre jets and Harvard Trainers approached to within 30 metres (98 ft) 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.[8] At about 13:00 the police tried to arrest a protester, and the crowd surged forward.[5] The police began shooting shortly thereafter.[5]

Death and injury toll


The official figure is that 69 people were killed, including 10 children, and 180 injured, including 19 children. The police shot many in the back as they turned to flee, causing some to be paralyzed.[1]

Victims were buried en masse in a ceremony performed by clergy. Philip Finkie Molefe, responsible for establishing the first Assemblies of God church in the Vaal, was among the clergy that conducted the service.[9]

Pretext for firing


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.[8] Few of the policemen present had received public order training. Some of them had been on duty for over twenty-four hours without respite.[8] 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.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found in 1998 that "the evidence of Commission deponents reveals a degree of deliberation in the decision to open fire at Sharpeville and indicates that the shooting was more than the result of inexperienced and frightened police officers losing their nerve."[6]: p.538 


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 including Nelson Mandela and some still enmeshed in the Treason Trial.[10]

Many white South Africans were also horrified by the massacre. The poet Duncan Livingstone, a Scottish immigrant from the Isle of Mull who lived in Pretoria, wrote in response to the massacre the Scottish Gaelic poem "Bean Dubh a' Caoidh a Fir a Chaidh a Marbhadh leis a' Phoileas" ("A Black Woman Mourns her Husband Killed by the Police").[11]

A storm of international protest followed the Sharpeville shootings, including sympathetic demonstrations in many countries[12][13] 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.[14]

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.[15]

Not all reactions were negative: embroiled in its opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, the Mississippi House of Representatives voted for 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." The resolution passed 78-8 in the Mississippi House of Representatives and 45-0 in the Mississippi State Senate.[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]

International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination


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

References in art and literature


The Afrikaner poet Ingrid Jonker mentioned the Sharpeville Massacre in her verse.

The event was an inspiration for painter Oliver Lee Jackson in his Sharpeville Series from the 1970s.[21]

Ingrid de Kok was a child living on a mining compound near Johannesburg where her father worked at the time of the Sharpeville massacre. In her poem "Our Sharpeville" she reflects on the atrocity through the eyes of a child.

Max Roach's 1960 album We Insist! Freedom Now Suite includes the composition "Tears for Johannesburg" in response to the massacre.

South African artist Gavin Jantjes dedicated several prints in his series A South African Colouring Book (1974-75) to the Sharpeville Massacre. Iconic reportage photographs of scattering protesters are arranged alongside stenciled and handwritten captions pulled from news reporting of the unfolding event.

See also



  1. ^ a b c Reeves, Rt. Reverend Ambrose. "The Sharpeville Massacre – A watershed in South Africa". Archived from the original on 24 June 2013. Retrieved 15 July 2007.
  2. ^ Macdonald, Fiona. "The photos that changed history – Ian Berry; Sharpeville Massacre". Retrieved 12 December 2018.
  3. ^ "Zambian Commemorates Sharpeville Massacre". Black View. 1 (5): 1–10. 2013. JSTOR 43799086.
  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. ^ Remember Sharpeville at South African History.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Tlou, Gift (4 August 2020). "Influential religious leader with 70-years in ministry to be laid to rest". The Star.
  10. ^ Humphrey, Tyler; Fourie, Bernardus G.; Duncan, Patrick (1960). "Sharpeville and After". Africa Today. 7 (3): 5–8. JSTOR 4184088.
  11. ^ Ronald Black (1999), An Tuil: Anthology of 20th Century Scottish Gaelic Verse, pp. 74–79, 728.
  12. ^ "Outside South Africa there were widespread reactions to Sharpeville in many countries which in many cases led to positive action against South Africa".—Reeves, Ambrose. "The Sharpeville Massacre – A watershed in South Africa". United Nations Unit on Apartheid. Archived from the original on 1 April 2007. Retrieved 3 January 2022.
  13. ^ E.g., "[I]mmediately following the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, over 1000 students demonstrated in Sydney against the apartheid system".—Barcan, Alan (24 June 2007). "Student activists at Sydney University 1960‐1967: a problem of interpretation". History of Education Review. 36 (1): 61–79. doi:10.1108/08198691200700005. hdl:1959.13/34876.
  14. ^ Dubow, Saul (December 2011). "Macmillan, Verwoerd and the 1960 'Wind of Change' Speech" (PDF). The Historical Journal. 54 (4): 1087–1114. doi:10.1017/S0018246X11000409. JSTOR 41349633. S2CID 145148670.
  15. ^ Joseph, Raymond (April 2018). "Naming history's forgotten fighters: South Africa's government is setting out to forget some of the alliance who fought against apartheid. Some of them remain in prison". Index on Censorship. 47 (1): 57–59. doi:10.1177/0306422018770119. ISSN 0306-4220.
  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. Vol. 5, no. 7. April 1960. p. 1. Retrieved 14 August 2017.
  18. ^ "Public Holidays Act 36 of 1994". South African Government. 1 January 1995. Retrieved 14 April 2023. PDF
  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. ^ Vaughn, Kenya (13 December 2021). "Inspired by Africa". St. Louis American. Retrieved 5 February 2022.
  22. ^ "Calls for inquiry into Israel's Gaza killings", The Guardian 18 May 2018.

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