The truth about Sharpeville

Patrick Laurence on the circumstances that triggered the notorious massacre of March 21 1960

The Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960 - the 50th anniversary of which was commemorated in the past week - brought notoriety to the National Party government of premier Hendrik Verwoerd and elevated the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) to the status of a major anti-apartheid resistance movement overnight.

But if the PAC's civil disobedience against the hated pass laws had not led to violence in Sharpeville - it had not done so in Soweto and elsewhere - it's campaign might simply have become another failed attempt by blacks to persuade the government to abolish oppressive and discriminatory legislation, as Thomas Karis and Gwendolen Carter argue in their documentary history of black protest and resistance in South Africa.

It should be emphasised that the PAC campaign was conceived as one modelled on the passive resistance strategy pioneered by Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa and later used to dislodge British rule in India. It should similarly be noted that PAC leader Robert Sobukwe wrote to the authorities informing them of the campaign and stressing that it would be non-violent.

With the advantage of hindsight two underlying factors that led to the police opening fire on the black civilians who had surrounded the police station at Sharpeville and to the killing of 69 black people - most of whom had been shot in the back while fleeing - and the wounding of another 180.

The first factor was the killing of nine policemen in Cata Manor, near Durban, by an enraged crowd of people living there a few weeks before.

Cato Manor had long been a place of turbulence and anger because of repeated attempts by the authorities to prevent black people from establishing shanty settlements there.

On the day of that massacre the police were seizing liquor from the inhabitants, as black indigenes were still prohibited from possessing or consuming all forms of alcohol (with the exception of their traditional beer and very often only if they consumed it at special legalised beer halls).

The Cato Manor killings undoubtedly made policemen edgy when they were surrounded by black people, as they were at Sharpeville on the fateful day of March 21 1960.  By midday Sharpeville residents had converged on the police station to either surrender their pass books, as instructed by the PAC, or, more likely, in anticipation that an important announcement was going to made about the abhorrent pass laws that controlled their movements from cradle to grave.

Many whites, policemen definitely not excluded, suffered from what might be termed a Piet Retief complex, Refief and his men having being lured unarmed into the great kraal of the Zulu king, Dingane, only to set upon and stabbed and clubbed to death.

Given the Cato Manor killings and the tale of the fate of Retief and his men that was taught repeatedly at white schools, it requires no feat of imagination to deduce that many of the young policemen were nervous as the black crowds began to press against the fence surrounding the police station in Sharpeville.

The second factor that helps explain why the PAC campaign for abolition of the pass laws led to violence at Sharpeville is that PAC was in its political infancy when it launched its anti-pass campaign on 21 March 1960. It had not being in existence for a full year, having broken away from the ANC in late 1958 and having held its founding conference in April 1959.

Africanists had predicted that the PAC would recruit 100 000 members by July 1959 but  admitted in August that it had only recruited 24 664 members.

In retrospect the PAC was too thin on the ground to embark on mass defiance campaign, though the PAC leadership thought at the time that it would be able to recruit volunteers from the black population at large.

According to Karis and Carter, when Sobukwe and his lieutenants in Soweto presented themselves for arrest for refusing to carry their pass books, they were accompanied by a mere 150 volunteers. Spontaneous support for The PAC attracted in Natal and the Eastern Cape was as meagre, if not more so, judging by the research contemporary newspaper reports at the time. Sharpeville and neighbouring townships in the Vaal Triangle were different. There was conspicuous support for PAC in local townships possibly because conditions were harder there and because the ANC had neglected that area.

Even so he PAC was at a disadvantage. Its decision to launch a campaign against the pass laws was taken after the ANC unanimously decided at its annual conference in December 1959 to launch a massive countrywide campaign against the pass laws, starting on 31 March 1960 and continuing to 26 June of hat year.

The PAC decision to launch its own campaign on 21 March was taken after the ANC decision and was clearly prompted by a desire to pre-empt the ANC campaign, even though it had still not fulfilled its early hopes on attracting 100 000 paid up members.

As Nelson Mandela put it in his autobiography Long March To Freedom: "(The PAC leaders) appeared lost, they were a leadership in search of followers and they had yet to initiate action that would put them on the political map." The secretary-general of the ANC, Duma Nokwe offered an even more damning judgment: "It is treacherous to embark on a campaign which has not been properly prepared and which has no reasonable prospect of succeeding."

A major problem at Sharpeville on the fatal day was that PAC marshals appeared to be thin on the ground and/or not vigilant enough in preventing the crowd from pressing against the fence surrounding the police station. In his analytical chronicle of the Sharpeville shooting An Ordinary Atrocity, Philip Frankel goes a stage further when he writes: "... the much vaunted marshals, whose primary task was to steer up the mob ... were unable or unwilling to steer the crowd away from what was clearly becoming a cataclysmic situation."

Emeritus professor David Welsh provides another perspective in his excellent and newly published book The Rise and Fall of Apartheid. He identifies the immediate cause of the tragedy as two simultaneous events: firstly, a scuffle at the fence gate when security police officer Att Spengler open it to let a member of the crowd in and some of the people at the gate entered with him, possibly because they were pushed from behind; and, secondly, the arrival at scene of Geelbooi, a common law criminal who was drunk and armed  with a handgun, and who, thinking he had spotted a policeman who had maltreated him, fired two shots in the air.

The reaction of the more nervous and younger policemen inside the perimeter of the fence was to open fire without being ordered to do so. The firing continued even as the purported would-be attackers were either felled by the fusillade of bullets or were still fleeing for their lives.

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