The Sharpeville Massacre

Updated: Apr 19

The Sharpeville Massacre, which took place in the township of Sharpeville, South Africa, on March 21, 1960, was the incident that resulted in the deaths of the greatest number of South Africans in a protest against apartheid to that point. It came to represent the struggle as well.

Sharpeville, a black suburb outside of Vereeniging (about fifty miles south of Johannesburg), was largely immune to anti-apartheid protests in nearby towns during the 1950s. Anti-apartheid activism had entered the town by 1960. Robert Sobukwe, a leader of the anti-apartheid Pan-Africanist Congress, was assassinated in March 1960. (PAC). organized the town’s first anti-apartheid rally. In order to minimize the risk of violence he wrote a letter to the Sharpeville police chief announcing the forthcoming demonstration and stressing that its participants would be non-violent.


"Sharpeville massacre memorial"by Matt From London is licensed under CC BY 2.0


On March 21, an estimated 7,000 Africans protested the oppressive pass laws in front of the Sharpeville police station. To put an end to the peaceful demonstration, almost 300 police officers arrived. A police officer was knocked down while attempting to disperse the crowd, and those in the crowd started to step forward to see what had happened.

According to other witnesses, there was no order to shoot, and the police did not fire a warning shot over the crowd. Police proceeded to fire into the crowd as thousands of Africans attempted to escape the violent scene. Sixty-nine Africans were killed and 186 others were injured, the majority of whom were shot in the back.


The Sharpeville Massacre brought apartheid's atrocities to the attention of the international community. Hundreds of mass demonstrations by black South Africans followed the massacre, many of which were violently suppressed by the South African police and military. The South African government declared a state of emergency on March 30, making any kind of protest illegal. About 25,000 people were detained around the country during those five months. The Unlawful Organizations Act of 1960, passed by the South African government, outlawed anti-apartheid organizations such as the Pan Africanist Congress and the African National Congress.


"File:Sharpeville Massacre Graves, Phelindaba Cemetery, Sharpeville, Vereenegining, South Africa.jpg"by Andrew Hall is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0


The government of South Africa's punitive actions in reaction to the Sharpeville Massacre, on the other hand, heightened and expanded opposition to apartheid, ushering in three decades of resistance and agitation in the country and growing international condemnation. The apartheid regime came to an end in 1994, when Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa. In 1994, near the site of the 1960 massacre, Mandela signed the nation's first post-apartheid constitution. In 1994, near the site of the 1960 massacre, Mandela signed the nation's first post-apartheid constitution.


Sources:

Henry F. Jackson, From the Congo to Soweto: U.S. Foreign Policy Toward Africa Since 1960 (New York:

Philip H. Frankel, An Ordinary Atrocity: Sharpeville and its Massacre (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001);

William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1982); Meredith Martin, The History of Apartheid: The Story of the Colour War in South Africa (New York: London House & Maxwell, 1962).

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