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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. 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 289 casualties in total, including 29 children. Many sustained back injuries from being shot as they fled.
In present-day South Africa, 21 March is celebrated as a public holiday in honour of human rights and to commemorate the Sharpeville massacre.
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. 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 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 detain and harass its political opponents.: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 March 21, 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. The Sharpeville police were not completely unprepared for the demonstration, as they had already been forced to drive smaller groups 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, 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, and the mood was described as "ugly", 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.
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 menacing the police barricades. Tear gas proved ineffectual, and policemen elected to repel these advances with their batons. At about 13:00 the police tried to arrest a protestor, resulting in a scuffle, and the crowd 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, causing some to be paralyzed.
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 nervous as two months before the massacre, nine constables had been assaulted and killed during a raid at Cato Manor. 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. Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar, the commanding officer of the police reinforcements at Sharpeville, said in his revealing 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 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.
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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
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.
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.
- List of massacres in South Africa
- Marikana massacre – 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
- Year of Africa
- Bulhoek Massacre
- Reeves, Rt. Reverend Ambrose. "The Sharpeville Massacre - A watershed in South Africa". sahistory.org.za. Retrieved 15 July 2007.
- Kaplan, Irving. Area Handbook for the Republic of South Africa. p. 603.
- "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 30 October 2014.
- Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Sharpeville Massacre, The Origin of South Africa's Human Rights Day". about.com. Retrieved 15 December 2006.
-  Archived 28 March 2010 at the Wayback Machine.
- Remember Sharpeville at South African History
- 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.
- "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" (PDF). Info.gov.za. 2012-09-18. Retrieved 2014-04-17.
- "Sharpeville Memorial, Theunis Kruger Street, Dicksonville, Sharpville - ABLEWiki". Able.wiki.up.ac.za. Retrieved 2014-04-17.