21 March 1960: The Sharpeville Massacre

On 21 March 1960 in the township of Sharpeville, South Africa, 69 black men, women and children were shot dead when police officers opened fire on unarmed demonstrators. The shootings shocked the world and were condemned by the United Nations, but none of the police officers involved have ever been convicted of an offence in connection with the events of that day.

The demonstration had been organised by Robert Subukwe, the leader of the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), as the first in a five-day campaign of non-violent protests against the pass laws. These laws required all black men and women (the laws had recently been extended to include women) to carry a pass book containing their personal details. Anybody found in a public place without their pass book could be arrested and detained for up to 30 days.

The aim of the demonstration was to persuade the government to abolish the laws by making them unworkable. The PAC encouraged the protesters to gather at the police station in Sharpeville without their pass books, thus offering themselves for arrest. The reasoning was that if enough people were arrested and imprisoned then the economy would be damaged by a lack of labour and the prisons would be overcrowded.

Between 5,000 and 7,000 people gathered outside the police station on the morning of 21 March 1960. Initial attempts to disperse the crowd using low flying aircraft failed and so police reinforcements were called in.

At 1:15pm 300 police officers opened fire on the crowd. The reasons for this action are still not clear, although it was claimed at the time that some of the protesters had started throwing stones.

The police continued firing as the demonstrators turned and fled “like rabbits” and many of the victims were shot in the back. The official casualty figures were 69 fatalities and 180 injuries. The injured were taken to the Baragwanath hospital near Johannesburg.

Three days later, on 24 March, public meetings in 24 districts of South Africa were banned. The PAC and the African National Congress (ANC) were banned on 8 April and a state of emergency was declared. When 224 people filed claims against the government in September 1961 the Indemnity Act was passed, absolving those involved in the massacre of any responsibility.

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