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Sharpeville Massacre

The Events of the Day


A few days before the massacre a pamphlet was circulated in the townships near Vereeniging (Sharpeville, Bophelong, Boipatong, and Evaton) calling for people to stay away from work on the Monday. The PAC, however, was not prepared to leave the demonstration to public choice. Testimony was given at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings that the telephone lines between Sharpeville and Vereeniging were cut on the Sunday evening, and that (some) bus drivers were detained until the Monday morning to stop people travelling out of Sharpeville to work. 2

"Evidence before the Commission points to a degree of coercion of non-politicised Sharpville residents who were pressurised into participating in the anti-pass protest."3

By 10 in the morning almost 5,000 protesters had congregated in the centre of Sharpeville, from where they walked to the police compound. Similar groups (about 4,000 in total) walked from Bophelong and Boipatong to the police station at Vanderbijlpark, whilst a larger gathering of almost 20,000 people formed at the police station in Evaton.

The crowd at Evaton was dispersed by low-flying Sabre jets, and that at Vanderbijlpark was dispersed by a baton charge and tear gas. One person was killed at Vanderbijlpark when the police opened fire in response (the police claimed) to stone throwing by the crowd. At Sharpville, with a number of PAC officials in the crowd, the low-flying jets had no effect. The crowd remained around the police compound, waiting for a PAC statement to be read out.

In the official TRC version of events the police remained passive until one-fifteen. Despite claims in the press in 1960 (and still in many reports) that squads of police went out into the crowd to arrest PAC officials, no action was actually taken by the police against the PAC at that time. "The police refused to arrest PAC members who presented themselves for arrest."4 Police accusations that the PAC leadership refused to instruct the crowd to disperse, however, were deemed false: various officials did in fact ask them to move away from the compound's fence. Only 300 or so protesters were still in the vicinity when the shooting started (this means, however, that the police managed to shoot almost all those near to the compound). By mid-day the small contingent of police normally present at the station (12 in all) had been boosted significantly: nearly 300 armed police and five Saracens (armoured vehicles) were present.

No one knows why the first shot was fired. The police claim it was in response to stone throwing by the crowd, and although this is mostly dismissed, such debris is visible amongst the fallen bodies and discarded footwear in photographs of the aftermath. The first shots being fired in response by inexperienced and nervous officers. (Rarely mentioned in contemporary reports is that the police were nervous because, only a few weeks before, nine policemen had been killed by a mob at Cato Manor, a township outside Durban.) Eyewitnesses from the crowd claim that an order was given to fire, or that the banging of a Saracen door was mistaken for gunfire from the crowd. No firm evidence for any weapons amongst the crowd (guns or traditional spears and knobkerries) has ever been given. The TRC concluded that there was a "degree of deliberation in the decision to open fire at Sharpville" which indicated "that the shooting was more than the result of inexperienced and frightened police officers losing their nerve."5

Somewhere between 50 and 75 of the police opened fire. The crowd initially confused, and perhaps thinking the police were using blanks, stood still. It was not until the bodies started to fall that they ran. The police continued to shoot the protesters even as they fled from the site. Of the 180 injured, only 30 had been shot from the front. The injured included 31 women and 19 children, while among the 69 killed, eight were women and ten children.

It took a while for emergency services to arrive (the telephone lines had been cut) and the police were slow to provide help. Following the massacre, the police made 77 arrests, including several people still receiving treatment in hospital (they were placed under guard until they were fit enough to be detained). Of those arrested, 55 were later released.

Read the TRC conclusion about Sharpeville.

2. Truth and Reconciliation Commission report Vol 3 Chapter 6 para 29.
3. ibid para 28.
4. ibid para 32.
5. ibid para 34.

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