The events of the 21st March 1960, that would later become known as the Sharpeville Massacre, represent one of the most appalling moments in South African history. There are different versions of the story – some people reported that the men and women gathered at the Sharpeville police station were protesting peacefully, and others that the crowd was throwing rocks – but what no one disputes is that dozens of South Africans lost their lives that day at the hands of the South African police, the very people meant to protect them.

PAC President, Robert Sobukwe
PAC President, Robert Sobukwe

President of the ANC, Chief Albert Luthuli, announced that 1960 was going to be the ‘Year of the Pass’ with a nationwide anti-pass campaign planned for the 31 March, the anniversary of the 1919 anti-pass campaign. But the newly formed Pan Africanist Congress preempted the ANC with its own anti-pass campaign taking place some 10 days earlier. Their plan was for thousands of black South Africans to surrender themselves at police stations across the country for failing to carry their pass books, with the aim being to put the country in a position where the jails were overflowing and unable to cope with the amount of prisoners, and with people in jail and not attending work, South Africa’s economy would come to a standstill. Events did not go as planned, with police refusing to arrest anyone, but simply recording the names of the protesters who arrived at the police stations. At least that was the case in most of the country, but in the township of Sharpeville in Johannesburg, things took a turn for the worse.

Crowds gathered outside South Africa House in London's Trafalgar Square, chanting, "Murder, Murder!"
Crowds gather outside South Africa House in London’s Trafalgar Square, chanting, “Murder, Murder!”

At a press conference held on Saturday 19th March 1960, PAC President Robert Sobukwe emphasised that the campaign should be conducted in a spirit of absolute non-violence, but despite this intention, and reports from journalists present on the day of Sharpeville that the crowd seemed jovial and in no way threatening, police opened fire on the crowd reportedly killing 69 people, including ten children, and seriously wounding a further 180.

The PAC did not achieve what they wanted to that day, far from it, but the news of what happened bought world-wide attention to the situation in South Africa, and marked a turning point in the country. In addition to international pressure, the massacre was a catalyst for a shift from passive to armed resistance, with the formation of Poqo, the military wing of the PAC, and Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, following shortly afterwards.

The government’s response was to clamp down down even harder, and on the 8th April 1960 both the PAC and the ANC were banned. Following the bannings secret meetings were held in offices of various sympathisers, such as Mrs Chetty, who owned a sewing factory and had rooms in Lakhani Chambers, which today form a part of Durban’s Liberation Heritage Route.

Click here to listen a to a short documentary on PAC leader, Robert Sobukwe, and here to listen to the stories of survivors of the Sharpeville Massacre.

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