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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, a crowd of about 5,000 to 7,000 black 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 were 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. In present-day South Africa, 21 March is celebrated as a public holiday in honour of human rights and to commemorate the Sharpeville massacre.
Since the 1920s, the movements of black South Africans had been restricted by pass laws. Leading up to the Sharpeville massacre, the apartheid-supporting National Party government under the leadership of Hendrik Verwoerd used these laws to enforce greater segregation and, in 1959-1960, extended them to include women.:pp.14,528 From the 1960s, the pass laws were the primary instrument used by the state to arrest and harass its political opponents. By the same token, it was mainly the popular resistance, mobilised against those pass laws, that kept resistance politics alive during this period.:p.163
The African National Congress (ANC) had decided to launch 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.
On the 21st of March, a group of between 5,000 and 7,000 people converged on the local police station in the township of Sharpeville, offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying their pass books. The Sharpeville police were not completely unprepared for the demonstration, as they had already been forced to drive smaller gangs of more militant activists away the previous night.
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.:p.534
By 10:00 am, 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 19,000, and the mood began turning unexpectedly hostile. The increasingly agitated mob now adopted a common attitude which was later described as "insulting, menacing, and provocative", prompting about 130 police reinforcements, supported by four Saracen armored cars to be rushed in. The police were armed with firearms, including Sten sub-machine guns. There was no evidence that anyone in the gathering was armed with anything other than rocks.
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 people) and menacing the police barricades. Tear gas proved ineffectual, and policemen were forced to repel these advances with their batons. At about 1:00 pm the police tried to arrest an alleged ringleader. There was a scuffle, and the throng surged forward. The shooting began shortly thereafter.
Death and injury toll
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.
Reasons 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 nervous as two months before the massacre nine constables had been murdered 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. Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar, the commanding officer of the police reinforcements at Sharpeville, said in his statement that "the native mentality does not allow them to gather for a peaceful demonstration. For them to gather means violence." He also denied giving any order to fire and stated that he would not have done so.
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.
A storm of international protest followed the Sharpeville shootings, including sympathetic demonstrations in many countries 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.
The Sharpeville massacre led to the banning of the PAC and ANC. 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.
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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.":p.537
International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
UNESCO marks March 21 as the yearly International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in memory of the massacre.
- Marikana miners' strike – August 2012 police shooting of approximately 34 striking miners widely compared to Sharpeville
- Sharpeville Six – six people convicted from a demonstration in Sharpeville in 1984 which drew international attention
- United Nations Security Council Resolution 610
- United Nations Security Council Resolution 615
- List of massacres in South Africa
- Archive holdings of the Commission of Enquiry regarding the Sharpeville massacre can be found at Borthwick Institute, University of York
- 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. ISBN 978-0-312-68298-9. ISBN 0-312-68298-0. "By the 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).
- "The Sharpeville Massacre". Time Magazine. 4 April 1960. Retrieved 15 December 2006.
- Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, Volume 3, Chapter 6 (PDF). 28 October 1998. pp. 531–537. Retrieved 15 December 2006.
- Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Sharpeville Massacre, The Origin of South Africa's Human Rights Day". about.com. Retrieved 15 December 2006.
- Remember Sharpeville at South African History[unreliable source?]
- 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.
- Reeves, Rt. Reverend Ambrose. "The Sharpeville Massacre - A watershed in South Africa". sahistory.org.za. Retrieved 15 July 2007.
- "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
- 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
- Public Holidays Act, Act No 36 of 1994