A Key Anniversary in the Global Anti-Racist Struggle: The Sharpeville Massacre



March 21st marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre of at least 69 unarmed civilians in a now-famous South African township. Here is a Wikipedia summary of the events:

On 21 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.

This was part of a large-scale effort of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), which was competing with the African National Congress in protesting these highly offensive, authoritarian, and racist pass laws:

By 10:00 am, a large crowd had gathered, and the atmosphere was peaceful and festive. Fewer than 20 police officers were present in the station at the start of the protest. Police and military used low-flying Sabre jet fighters to attempt to intimidate the crowd into dispersing. . . . The police set up Saracen armoured vehicles in a line facing the protesters and, at 1:15 pm, fired upon the crowd. Police reports claimed that members of the crowd threw stones at them (or at their cars) and that inexperienced police officers opened fire spontaneously. The police were armed with Stens and tear gas. Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar, the commanding officer of the police forces at Sharpeville, denied giving any order to fire and stated that he would not have done so. Nevertheless, his attitude towards the protest is revealed in his statement that “the native mentality does not allow them to gather for a peaceful demonstration. For them to gather means violence.” . . . The police continued firing even when the crowd had turned to run, and the majority of those killed and wounded were shot in the back. There was no evidence that anyone in the crowd was armed.

According to the official record, some 69 people were killed, with 180 suffering injuries—at least 68 of whom were women and children. The impact on anti-apartheid organization among Black and other South Africans was great:

The Sharpeville massacre led to the banning of the PAC and ANC and 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.

Once South African apartheid fell, Sharpeville became the site where new President Nelson Mandela signed the new democratic Constitution of South Africa. This day is now commemorated as human rights day in South Africa, and is a day for all of us to remember in the global anti-racism struggles.

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