25 March 2010 Edition
50th anniversary of Sharpeville
Brutal massacre that galvanised the anti-apartheid movement
BY EMMA CLANCY
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.
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 would be literally shot off the streets.
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.”
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.
Protesters burn their pass books, which controlled travel and employment in South Africa
Eyewitness to slaughter
Ian Berry, photographer, Drum magazine...
“March 21st was my day off and I was at home when I heard on the news that someone had been shot outside Sharpeville. This was a day of protest against the pass laws organised by the Pan Africanist Congress with demonstrations taking place across the Reef, and I went into the Drum Office to see what their contacts had heard.
“Nothing, it turned out; all the staff were out apart from sub-editor Humphrey Tyler; and no-one had phoned in with information. Humphrey and I borrowed Tom’s car. When we got to Sharpeville, spotter planes were circling overhead and about fifteen cars were waiting on the outskirts of the township. The police drove past in armoured vehicles, which were not common at the time, and the press followed, but we were twice stopped and threatened that we would be arrested, as ‘Europeans’, for being in the township illegally.
“Many among the string of cars were novices to South Africa drafted in to cover the developing tension, and all of them turned back. Humphrey and I conferred, thought we couldn’t be far from the centre of the township and decided to follow the police at a discreet distance. We came to a large square compound in the centre, a police station surrounded by wire fences, with fields on two sides and roads on the other two. The armed vehicles went into the compound and we drove on to the waste ground beside, unobserved. Humphrey stayed in the car, I got out to see what was happening. Not much, it seemed; my guess was that there were two to three thousand there, but they were spread over a large area and with people no more than three or four deep at the fence, it didn’t seem an enormous crowd. The demonstrators I talked to showed no hostility.
“The cops were some distance away inside the compound, and there wasn’t much to photograph. I was concerned about being spotted and arrested for very little photographic return so I walked back across the waste ground to Humphrey and the car. I leaned in. ‘Maybe it’s worth telephoning and finding out if anything else is going on.’ Suddenly there was shouting from the crowd.
“I turned and started to walk back towards the compound. The cops were now standing on top of their armoured cars waving sten guns, and when I was fifty yards away from the compound they opened fire into the crowd. I can’t say for sure that nobody lobbed a stone at the police, but I do not believe a threatening situation had built up in the time it took me to walk the two sides of the compound and back. The cops were in no danger. I can only assume that they came out with the intention of showing the crowd, and in the process black South Africa, a dreadful lesson.
“People started to run in all directions, some towards me, some away. The majority of the people who were killed were running away, around the side of the compound I had just come from. A woman was hit immediately beside me. A boy ran towards me with his coat pulled up over his head as if to protect himself from the bullets. I fell to the ground on my stomach and took pictures.
“The shooting stopped, and then it started again. When it stopped for the second time, a man stood over the woman next to me and touched her. He lifted his hand and hesitated for a moment and looked at it, covered in blood. I thought I would be shot myself if I didn’t get out and I ran back to Humphrey and the car. We took off.
“We were quickly lost and although nervous about people wanting to take revenge on a couple of whites, we asked a man the way out. He readily told us and we left. Neither of us thought we had been witness to a definitive moment in South African history, although that is what it proved to be, and we didn’t know how many people had been killed.”
Following the Sharpeville massacre, as it came to be known, the death toll rose to 69 and the number of injuries to 180.
In the following days 77 people, many of whom were still in hospital, were arrested for questioning – most were later released.
On 24 March the government banned all public meetings in 24 districts of South Africa and on April 8 the PAC and the African National Congress (ANC) were banned and a state of emergency was declared in the country.
The following September 224 people lodged civil claims against the government but the government responded by introducing the Indemnity Act which relieved all officials of any responsibility for the Sharpeville atrocities. No police officer involved in the massacre was ever convicted.
The massacre made the world question apartheid; it was brought up in the UN Security Council for the first time. South Africa was called on to “initiate measures aimed at bringing about racial harmony based on equality and abandon its policies of racial discrimination and apartheid”. South Africa refused, causing worldwide anger.
Legacy of apartheid poses big challenge – ANC chair
Speaking to An Phoblacht during the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis held in Dublin in early March, international guest Baleka Mbete, a National Chairperson for the ANC and former Deputy President of South Africa, said that important steps forward had been made in the country since 1994 but that huge challenges remain.
“Successive ANC governments have made a lot of positive changes to South Africa since we came to power 16 years ago. Of course, we have extended democratic rights to all citizens and dismantled the formal structure of apartheid,” Mbete said.
“But overcoming the structural legacy of apartheid – poverty and inequality – remains our biggest challenge,” she said.
“For so long our movement was in opposition and we could not have anticipated the complexities of being in government. But we are enthusiastic about being in this position. We believe we are up to meeting the challenges, and we are confident in the renewed mandate given to us by the people in last April’s general election in which the ANC alliance won almost 70% of the vote.
Mbete said that last year the ANC had completed a comprehensive 15-year review of their achievements and areas that needed to be improved.
“Fifteen years is long enough to have gained the knowledge and experience of operating the state structures and we wanted to have an honest appraisal of our work. We want to launch a concerted push to really improve the quality of life of the people, who are still suffering from poverty,” she said.
“We have five key priorities for the next five years – creating decent jobs, developing education and health services, reducing crime and developing rural areas.
“We have tried to reform government structures to best meet these needs. For example, we have now set up an equality ministry to address the needs of women, children and people with disabilities. This is one area that needs much more attention.
“The majority of women lived in the so-called reserves in rural areas while their partners went to work in the towns or cities, a pattern that developed in the framework of colonialism but which still exists today.
“We have also set up a ministry of rural development and land affairs. Because, despite progress, many people have been left behind in these rural areas. They are lacking basic services and sending their children to school in mud huts.”
The ANC chairperson said that the legacy of apartheid and meeting immediate needs “will mean a bigger bill for the government”.
“But we believe this is something we must do,” she said.
“The global economic recession exacerbates our existing problems by fuelling unemployment, particularly in South Africa’s mining industry, where there has been large numbers of workers laid off.
“We want to mitigate the effects of the recession through the process of all the social partners working together, to make sure the unions and workers’ representatives have a say – and that workers can be retrained for different industries, for example.”
Mbete told the Ard Fheis that the ANC would be marking its centenary in 2012, and urged Irish republicans to participate in events in South Africa and internationally to celebrate a century of struggle against apartheid and oppression.
An Phoblacht Magazine
AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:
- Don't miss your chance to get the second edition of the 2019 magazine, published to coincide with Easter Week
- This special edition which focuses on Irish Unity, features articles by Pearse Doherty, Dr Thomas Paul and Martina Anderson.
- Pearse sets out the argument for an United Ireland Economy whilst Pat Sheehan makes the case for a universally free all-island health service.
- Other articles include, ‘Ceist teanga in Éirinn Aontaithe’, ‘Getting to a new Ireland’ and ‘Ireland 1918-22: The people’s revolution’.