Sharpeville: Brutal massacre that galvanised anti-apartheid movement

Sharpeville, 1960

Sharpeville, 1960

Published in An Phoblacht on 25 March 2010

South Africans have marked the 50th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre by joining a commemorative rally in the town’s stadium that was addressed by the country’s Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe.

On 21 March 1960 in the township, the apartheid regime’s police officers opened fire on an unarmed demonstration of thousands of black South Africans protesting against discriminatory laws, in particular the pass system that controlled travel and employment. Sixty-nine people were shot dead, most of them in the back as they were fleeing the gunfire; at least 180 more were wounded.

The commemoration also marked the killings of 29 people in 1985 marching in the town of Langa to mark the 25th anniversary of Sharpeville.

“The Sharpeville and Langa massacres were a tipping point in that they triggered revulsion and disgust locally and internationally,” Motlanthe said at the ceremony.

Catalyst

The pass, referred to by non-white South Africans as the ‘dompass’ – the ‘stupid pass’ – had been introduced by British colonialists in the 19th century and its use tightened in the 1950s, including being forced onto women. The pass laws controlled travel and employment of holders and black people faced arbitrary arrest if they were not carrying it.

Thousands of black South Africans rallied peacefully against the pass system that day 50 years ago. They turned up outside the Sharpeville police station without their passes and demanded the police arrest them. The police responded by massacring the protesters and in the following weeks and months, under a ‘state of emergency’, thousands of black South Africans were rounded up and detained without trial. The African National Congress and other political parties were banned.

Sharpeville was a pivotal moment in the history of the South African state and the resistance movement that ultimately brought one of the 20th century’s most tyrannical political systems to its knees. The massacre radicalised a generation of South Africans and prompted the ANC to launch an armed campaign against the state as people became convinced that peaceful resistance was no longer an option.

The Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) or ‘Spear of the Nation’ became the military wing of the ANC and had the honour of later being classified as a ‘terrorist’ organisation by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the United States.

Sharpeville drew the world’s attention to the abhorrent reality of the apartheid state and its violations of human rights, and was the spark for the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign that developed over the following decades until it became powerful enough to have a meaningful political and economic impact on the regime – helping to force it to the negotiating table with the ANC.

In 1966 the UN General Assembly declared 21 March the International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Today, 21 March is celebrated as Human Rights Day in South Africa. In 1996, the ANC chose Sharpeville as the site to usher in the era when then-President Nelson Mandela signed the progressive new South African constitution into law.

“To adequately commemorate the victims and survivors of the Sharpeville massacre and other bloodbaths, we must ensure the progressive realisation of the socio-economic rights as envisaged in the Bill of Rights,” Motlanthe said.

“This means as government working with our social partners, we must strive to improve the quality of life of all our people by providing shelter, basic amenities, education, and security.”

Racist tyranny

While racial segregation and oppression of the black majority had been entrenched by European colonial settlers, both Boers and the British, for hundreds of years, apartheid was made official policy in 1948. Legislation was passed that classified people – and the rights they were entitled to – on the basis of their skin colour or ethnicity – ’black’, ‘white’, ‘coloured’ and ‘Indian’.

The regime began consolidating the process of segregating different racial groups geographically and eventually tried to corral the black population into ten ‘bantustans’ or ‘homelands’. Formalised in 1958, these were designed not only to drive black people from their land to be replaced by white settlers, but also to deprive them of their South African citizenship and (already limited) franchise under the guise of having ‘autonomy’ in the impoverished bantustans.

The bantustans, which allowed the regime to rid itself of social responsibility for the majority of the state’s citizens, were only recognised as ‘sovereign states’ by South Africa – and Israel.

Addressing the UN four years after the Sharpeville massacre, Argentinean-born Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara said: “We speak out to put the world on guard against what is happening in South Africa. The brutal policy of apartheid is applied before the eyes of the nations of the world. The peoples of Africa are compelled to endure the fact that on the African continent the superiority of one race over another remains official policy, and that in the name of this racial superiority murder is committed with impunity. Can the United Nations do nothing to stop this?”

The fierce state repression of the 1960s failed to prevent an upsurge of youthful struggles for civil rights in the 1970s, with a mass student demonstration in Soweto in June 1976 being met once again with ruthless violence. This time several hundred school students were shot dead.

‘Stop Israeli apartheid’

Throughout the 20th century the oppressed people of South Africa fought back with courage and determination in the face of brutal repression – using strikes, protests, armed struggle, civil disobedience and more. The Sharpeville and Soweto massacres were defining moments in this struggle in terms of galvanising the resistance and shocking the international community into taking action against the regime.

Today, as a democratic South Africa struggles to overcome the legacy of the poverty and racial inequality caused by 400 years of colonialism, it also demands that the new apartheid state, Israel, be similarly isolated through boycott, divestment and sanctions.

Nelson Mandela has said that justice for the Palestinians is “the greatest moral issue of the age”.

“We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians,” he said.

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