Guest Blog Post by Karen Lotter
I wonder what it was like there at Sharpeville on 21 March 1960. I’ve seen pictures and shuddered with horror, but I also think of the build-up to that day that changed South African history forever.
Tomorrow we celebrate Human Rights Day in remembrance of the Sharpeville massacre and also of the heroes of our past who fought for human rights – who lived and gave their lives so that we could live in a non-sexist, non-racial and democratic South Africa.
Our democracy is still very young and we all struggle at times to live up to the spirit of our Freedom Charter and Constitution but I think we can agree on one fundamental truth, that if we don’t keep fighting for our human rights and those of others – our brothers and sisters in Africa and also wherever we see exploitation and oppression, we will be diminished as people.
When I think about Sharpeville I think about how long black people in South Africa had already been chafing under the yoke of oppression, dispossession and discrimination and how on that day when at least 180 black Africans were injured (there are claims of as many as 300) and 69 killed it all changed.
ANC and PAC were Trying to Outdo each other with Anti-Pass Action
Let me set the scene a bit – within the liberation movement’s tension was mounting and both the ANC and the PAC were trying to outdo each other.
At the annual conference of the ANC held in Durban on 16 December 1959, the President General of the ANC, Chief Albert Luthuli, announced that 1960 was going to be the ‘Year of the Pass’. Through a series of mass actions, the ANC planned to launch a nationwide anti-pass campaign on 31 March the anniversary of the 1919 anti-pass campaign.
At a press conference held on Saturday 19th March 1960, charismatic PAC President Robert Sobukwe announced that they were going to embark on an anti-pass campaign on Monday the 21st of March.
According to PAC leader Robert Sobukwe’s ‘Testimony about the Launch of the Campaign’:
“…the campaign was made known on the 18th of March. Circulars were printed and distributed to the members of the organisation and on the 21st of March, on Monday, in obedience to a resolution they had taken, the members of the Pan Africanist Congress surrendered themselves at various police stations around the Country”.
At the press conference Sobukwe emphasized that the campaign should be conducted in a spirit of absolute non-violence and that the PAC saw it as the first step in Black people’s bid for total independence and freedom by 1963 (Cape Times, 1960).
According to all accounts, on the morning of 21 March PAC members walked around Sharpeville waking people up, urging them to take part in the demonstration. Other PAC members tried to stop bus drivers from going on duty; the result was that there was no transport taking Sharpeville residents to work in Vereeniging. People joined the protest and gathered in a field not far from the Sharpeville police station, when a sizable crowd of people had joined them they proceeded to the police station – chanting freedom songs and calling out the campaign slogans “Izwe lethu” (Our land); “Awaphele amapasti” (Down with passes); “Sobukwe Sikhokhele” (Lead us Sobukwe); “Forward to Independence, Tomorrow the United States of Africa”. These were just ordinary people. Not armed soldiers. These were just people who wanted to live a decent life. They were sick and tired of the passes and of being treated like second class citizens in the land of their birth.
300 Armed Policemen
By mid-day approximately 300 armed policemen faced a crowd of approximately 5000 people. At 13h15 a small scuffle began near the entrance of the police station, a policeman was accidently pushed over and the crowd began to move forward to see what was happening.
Now as a mlungu who grew up with the spectre of the “swart gevaar” hanging over me, (The apartheid government had a propaganda machine to rival Joseph Goebels!) I can only imagine that those white cops were totally terrified.
Cops in those days were also not the most educated and I am sure they did not have much intelligence about what was going on at PAC meetings, so “peaceful protest” was probably furthest from their mind when they looked out over their Saracens and saw thousands of singing and chanting Africans coming towards them.
Police Opened Fire
OK, what happened then, is sadly still happening now when protesters clash with the police – the cops overreact. And the police opened fire on unarmed people who were protesting against the pass laws. The firing lasted for approximately two minutes, leaving 69 people dead and, according to the official inquest, 180 people seriously wounded -many of them shot in the back.
And then the police tried to cover it up, so they lied …
According to an account from Humphrey Tyler, the assistant editor at Drum magazine, “The police have claimed they were in desperate danger because the crowd was stoning them. Yet only three policemen were reported to have been hit by stones – and more than 200 Africans were shot down. The police also have said that the crowd was armed with ‘ferocious weapons’, which littered the compound after they fled.
I saw no weapons, although I looked very carefully, and afterwards studied the photographs of the death scene. While I was there I saw only shoes, hats and a few bicycles left among the bodies. The crowd gave me no reason to feel scared, though I moved among them without any distinguishing mark to protect me, quite obvious with my white skin. I think the police were scared though, and I think the crowd knew it.”
Sharpeville – A Crisis for the Apartheid Government
This massacre on the 21st day of March at Sharpeville in Vereeniging, created a crisis for the apartheid government, both inside the country and internationally. In many ways this was the beginning of the end of Apartheid.
The government immediately declared a State of Emergency and banned political meetings. Within less than a month, it banned both the Pan Africanist Congress, which had organized the action in Sharpeville, and the African National Congress. After lengthy internal discussions, the ANC and PAC turned to armed struggle and went underground. And the rest, as they say, is history.
So, on 21 March 2012 we salute the humble people of that dusty little township of Sharpeville who marched to the police station in great spirits, singing freedom songs, wanting to hand in their dompasses and who were gunned down by police. They gave their lives so that we can be free!