Sharpeville massacre

Sharpeville massacre

The Sharpeville Massacre, also known as the Sharpeville shootings, occurred on March 21, 1960, when South African police began shooting on a crowd of black protesters. The confrontation occurred in the township of Sharpeville, in what is now Gauteng province.

Preceding events

Since 1923, the movements of black South Africans were restricted by pass laws. Leading up to the Sharpeville massacre, the Apartheid-supporting National Party government under the leadership of Hendrik Verwoerd used these laws to enforce greater segregation,cite news | title=The Sharpeville Massacre | publisher=Time Magazine | date=1960-04-04 | url =,9171,869441-1,00.html | accessdate=2006-12-15] and had recently been extended by the National Party to include women.cite book | title=Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, Volume 3, Chapter 6 | date=1998-10-28 | pages=531-537 | url= | accessdate=2006-12-15|format=PDF]

The African National Congress (ANC) had decided to launch a campaign of protests against pass laws. These protests were to begin on March 31 1960, but the rival Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) decided to pre-empt the ANC by launching its own campaign ten days earlier because they believed that the ANC could not win the campaign, on March 21.cite web | last=Boddy-Evans | first=Alistair | title=Sharpeville Massacre, The Origin of South Africa's Human Rights Day | | url= | accessdate=2006-12-15]


On March 21, 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 broader campaign organized by the PAC. There is evidence that the PAC used creative means to draw the crowd to the protest, 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. Regardless, most of the crowd were in favour of the protest.

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, a tactic that had been successful at a similar protest on the same day at Evaton. The police set up Saracen armoured vehicles in a line facing the protesters, and at 1:15 pm fired upon the crowd.

Reasons for firing

Police reports claimed that members of the crowd threw stones at them, 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."cite web
last=Reeves | first=Rt. Reverend Ambrose | title=The Sharpeville Massacre - A watershed in South Africa | | url=
] It is likely that the police were nervous as, a few weeks before the massacre, nine police officers were killed by a mob at Cato Manor. Evidence given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1998 suggested "a degree of deliberation in the decision to open fire". 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 any of the crowd were armed. Fact|date=April 2008

Death and injury toll

The official figure is that 69 people were killed including 8 women and 10 children, and over 180 injured, including 31 women and 19 children.


The uproar among blacks was immediate, and the following week saw demonstrations, protest marches, strikes, and riots around the country. On March 30 1960, the government declared a state of emergency, detaining more than 18,000 people.

A storm of international protest followed the Sharpeville shootings, including condemnation by the United Nations. On April 1 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 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.


Since 1994, 21 March has been commemorated as Human Rights Day in South Africa.

Sharpeville was the site selected by former President Nelson Mandela for the signing into law of the Constitution of South Africa, on December 10, 1996.

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."


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