Monday, 21 March 1960, was the date chosen by the PAC for a national launch of the first phase of their Positive Action Campaign against the minority rule in South Africa. The first phase of the campaign was targeted at the pass laws, the most reviled of all the apartheid laws.
The pass system ensured that husbands and wives were separated if one could not obtain a permit to reside in the same area as the other; children were separated from their parents as children over sixteen had to obtain a special permit to reside in the same area as their parents if they stayed outside the Bantustan reservation; Black men and women could not work for whom they chose as a special permit had to be obtained to look for work, and the permit was only valid for a limited period. Anyone not adhering to the pass law regulations would face arrest and imprisonment.
The campaign was lead by the PAC President at the time, Mr. Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe. His intention was to organize a peaceful, mass demonstration where every Black pass law holder would march to their nearest police station, without their passes, and offer themselves up for arrest. The principal aim of the campaign was to ensure that a large number of the Black labour force was behind bars, thus crippling the industries and forcing the Government to accept the PAC’s terms.
In a letter written to the Commissioner of the SAP, Major-General CI Rademeyer, two days before the planned march, Sobukwe wrote, “…We will surrender ourselves to the police for arrest. If told to disperse, we will. But we cannot expect to run helter-skelter because a trigger-happy, African-hating young white police officer has given thousands or even hundreds of people three minutes within which to remove their bodies from his immediate environment.”
These words would later prove to be haunting.
On 21 March 1960, in a little known township called Sharpeville, demonstrators gathered at the police station in Seeiso Street. Saracen armoured vehicles were stationed in the surrounding area and SAAF jets flew overhead. The policemen on duty that day were nervous as many were facing a crowd situation for the first time, and the memory of nine policemen that were killed by an angry mob in Cato Manor near Durban two months before, was fresh in their minds.
It is not known what the exact number of demonstrators were there on the day. The police reported 8000, the superintendent reported 5 000 and the PAC reported 2 000. The crowd was relaxed, although rowdy. They were singing and shouting political slogans. They sang songs like Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika and Senzane na iAfrika and shouted slogans like Izwe Lethu, I’Afrika which means “our country.” The exact reason for what was to happen is uncertain. Witnesses stated that a policeman was accidentally pushed over, feared for his life and started to pull his trigger. No order to fire was given, however the policemen started firing on the crowd for 20 to 40 seconds after hearing the initial gunshot. After the guns stopped there was silence for a long time. Many witnesses to the Sharpeville Massacre recall the rain that fell after the tragedy that washed the blood off the streets. One witness, Mr. Ruben Rapoetsoe, recalls, “Immediately after the massacre, the rain came and cleaned the despair from the streets.”
Sixty-nine people lay dead in the streets of Sharpeville, 180 lay injured. Seventy per cent of those killed were shot in the back. A massacre of innocent people. That same day two demonstrators were killed at Vanderbijlpark and five at Langa and Nyanga in Cape Town.
Soon after the massacre, the Government banned the PAC and the ANC, a State of Emergency was declared and most of the country’s leading anti-apartheid activists were arrested or forced to work underground. The question of apartheid was brought up for the first time in the United Nations Security Council and the international community started putting pressure on the South African Government to end the racist regime. The Sharpeville Massacre can be seen as the beginning of the end.
To honour those lives lost during the Sharpeville shooting and to all those who died for the liberation of South Africa, the Sharpeville Memorial was opened on 21 March 2002, a day now known as Human Rights Day. It is located in Seeiso Street in Sharpeville, opposite the police station where the shootings took place.