The Sharpeville Massacre of 1960

The Origin of South Africa's Human Rights Day

Sharpeville Massacre
28th March 1960: Armoured vehicles in the streets of Sharpeville, during rioting in response to laws requiring Black citizens to carry passes. Keystone / Getty Images

On March 21, 1960, at least 180 Black Africans were injured (there are claims of as many as 300) and 69 killed when South African police opened fire on approximately 300 demonstrators, who were protesting against the pass laws, at the township of Sharpeville, near Vereeniging in the Transvaal. In similar demonstrations at the police station in Vanderbijlpark, another person was shot. Later that day at Langa, a township outside Cape Town, police baton charged and fired tear gas at the gathered protesters, shooting three and injuring several others. The Sharpeville Massacre, as the event has become known, signaled the start of armed resistance in South Africa, and prompted worldwide condemnation of South Africa's Apartheid policies.

The Build-up to the Massacre

On May 13, 1902, the treaty which ended the Anglo-Boer War was signed at Vereeniging; it signified a new era of cooperation between English and Afrikaner living in Southern Africa. By 1910, the two Afrikaner states of Orange River Colony (Oranje Vrij Staat) and Transvaal (Zuid Afrikaansche Republick) were joined with Cape Colony and Natal as the Union of South Africa. The repression of Black Africans became entrenched in the constitution of the new union (although perhaps not intentionally) and the foundations of Grand Apartheid were laid.

After the Second World War, the Herstigte ('Reformed' or 'Pure') National Party (HNP) came into power (by a slender majority, created through a coalition with the otherwise insignificant Afrikaner Party) in 1948. Its members had been disaffected from the previous government, the United Party, in 1933, and had started at the government's accord with Britain during the war. Within a year the Mixed Marriages Act was instituted – the first of many segregationist laws devised to separate privileged white South Africans from the Black African masses. By 1958, with the election of Hendrik Verwoerd, (white) South Africa was completely entrenched in the philosophy of Apartheid.

There was opposition to the government's policies. The African National Congress (ANC) was working within the law against all forms of racial discrimination in South Africa. In 1956 had committed itself to a South Africa which "belongs to all." A peaceful demonstration in June that same year, at which the ANC (and other anti-Apartheid groups) approved the Freedom Charter, led to the arrest of 156 anti-Apartheid leaders and the 'Treason Trial' which lasted until 1961.

By the late 1950s, some of ANC's members had become disillusioned with the 'peaceful' response. Known as 'Africanists' this select group was opposed to a multi-racial future for South Africa. The Africanists followed a philosophy that a racially assertive sense of nationalism was needed to mobilize the masses, and they advocated a strategy of mass action (boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience and non-cooperation). The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) was formed in April 1959, with Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe as president.

The PAC and ANC did not agree on policy, and it seemed unlikely in 1959 that they would co-operate in any manner. The ANC planned a campaign of demonstration against the pass laws to start at the beginning of April 1960. The PAC rushed ahead and announced a similar demonstration, to start ten days earlier, effectively hijacking the ANC campaign.

The PAC called for "African males in every city and village... to leave their passes at home, join demonstrations and, if arrested, [to] offer no bail, no defence, [and] no fine."1

A Non-Violent Protest Campaign

On 16 March 1960, Sobukwe wrote to the commissioner of police, Major General Rademeyer, stating that the PAC would be holding a five-day, non-violent, disciplined, and sustained protest campaign against pass laws, starting on March 21. At a press conference on March 18, he further stated, "I have appealed to the African people to make sure that this campaign is conducted in a spirit of absolute non-violence, and I am quite certain they will heed my call. If the other side so desires, we will provide them with an opportunity to demonstrate to the world how brutal they can be." The PAC leadership was hopeful of some kind of physical response.


  • Africa since 1935 Vol VIII of the UNESCO General History of Africa, editor Ali Mazrui, published by James Currey, 1999, p259-60.