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Massacre that exposed apartheid—60 years after Sharpeville

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Sixty years ago this week the small township of Sharpeville in South Africa hit the headlines around the world. In 1985 Socialist Worker’s Alan Gibson looked at what happened
Issue 2697
A protest against the racist pass laws in Zeerust in the run up to the Sharpeville demonstration
A protest against the racist pass laws in Zeerust in the run up to the Sharpeville demonstration

“We went into Sharpeville the back way, behind a grey police car and three Saracens armoured vehicles. As we drove through the fringes of the township many people shouted the Pan-Africanist slogan ‘Izwe Lethu’, which means ‘Our Land’, or gave the thumbs-up ‘freedom’ salute and shouted ‘Afrika!’.

“They were grinning, cheerful, and nobody seemed to be afraid. There were crowds in the streets as we approached the police station. There were plenty of police, too, wearing more guns and ammunition than uniforms.

“An African approached and said he was the local Pan-Africanist leader. He told us his organisation was against violence and that the crowd was there for a peaceful demonstration.

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“The crowd seemed perfectly amiable. It certainly never crossed our minds that they would attack us or anybody.

“There were sudden shrill cries of ‘Izwe Lethu’ from near the police, and I could see a small section of the crowd swirl around the Saracens and hands went up in the Africanist salute. Then the shooting started. 

“We heard the chatter of a machine gun, then another, then another. There were hundreds of women, some of them laughing. They must have thought the police were firing blanks. One woman was hit about ten yards from our car. Her companion, a young man, went back when she fell. 

“He thought she had stumbled. Then he turned her over and saw that her chest had been shot away. He looked at the blood on his hand and said: ‘My God, she’s gone!’ Hundreds of kids were running, too.

“One of the policemen was standing on top of a Saracen, and it looked as though he was firing his gun into the crowd. He was swinging it around in a wide arc from his hip as though he were panning a movie camera. Two other officers were with him, and it looked as if they were firing pistols. Most of the bodies were strewn on the road running through the field in which we were. 

“One by one the guns stopped.”

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This was the eyewitness description by Humphrey Tyler, assistant editor of Drum magazine.

He was part of the estimated 10,000 black people who gathered outside Sharpeville police station on 21 March 1960.

They had come demanding to be arrested for not carrying passes allowing them access to proscribed (white) areas. There had been many similar protests ever since 1948 when passes were introduced.

This time the police panicked. Without warning they pumped 750 rounds into the crowd.

At least 69 people were killed and over 200 injured.

It was symbol of the violence and racist cruelty of the apartheid regime that divided black and white and reduced Africans to third class citizens in the land of their birth.

But there was also resistance.

As the bodies were being carted away so news of the massacre raced around the countries’ poverty stricken townships. In Cape Town thousands of African workers stopped work and stevedores walked off the ships. 

A “day of mourning” a week later resulted in riots and shooting around Johannesburg, and police baton charges at the crowds in Cape Town. 


The end of the month saw a huge demonstration in Cape Town, and mass pass book burnings in many black townships. The pundits started predicting the downfall of the apartheid regime. Politicians around the world were screaming for reforms. 

The old colonial powers, like Britain, had spent years fostering moderate black governments in now independent African countries. 

They feared that the potentially revolutionary force of black people in South Africa would become a living example for Africans throw throughout the continent. Overseas investments to the country practically ceased. 

But, against all the odds, and using unprecedented terror and violence, the demonstrations and riots were quelled. The South African government, led by the rabid right-winger Dr Verwoerd, declared a state of emergency. 

Over 20,000 people were rounded up, including around 1,000 white liberals. The only reform the regime conceded was to allow Africans to buy European liquor. 

The African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan African Congress (PAC), the two leading black organisations, were outlawed. Leading figures, such as Nelson Mandela, were arrested. The arrests continued right through to 1964 when much of the internal leadership of the black movement were arrested at Rivonia outside Johannesburg.

The 1960s were a low point in the struggle. But in the 1970s workers’ resistance exploded and then came the Soweto rebellion of 1976.

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