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Sharpeville Massacre

World Condemnation and Political Aftermath


In September that year 224 civil claims for damages were served against the Minister of Justice. The government's response was the Indemnity Act (1961): legislation that indemnified the government and its officials retrospectively against such claims. (Shortly afterwards, in response to public pressure, the government set up a committee to examine the claims and to recommend ex gratia payments; but few were actually paid out.)

What caused worldwide condemnation was not so much the deaths (such killings are more common that we would like to think: Frank Welsh in his History of South Africa6 compares it to 'Bloody Sunday', Londonderry January 1972, and the shooting of Kent State University students, Ohio 1970) but the callous way in which the Apartheid government put the blame squarely on the dead and injured.

It had only been six weeks since the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, had given his "winds of change" speech in Cape Town. Britain, who had consistently vetoed United Nation sanctions against South Africa could no longer condone South Africa's actions. (In April 1960 the only UN member not to condemn the event was South Africa itself.) Curiously, although there was worldwide condemnation, South African exports to Europe increased by 50%, to America by 65%, and to Asia by 300% during this period.

Rather than instigate a change in policy, Apartheid was more rigidly applied. A state of emergency was declared on 30 March (it lasted until 31 August 1960) and 18,000 black strikers were detained. On 8 April the Unlawful Organisations Act (1960) declared both the ANC and PAC illegal. The following day a disgruntled farmer, David Pratt, attempted to assassinate the South African Premier Dr Hendrik Verwoerd. Rather than have a white man be held culpable for the assassination attempt, Pratt was found mentally ill.

A referendum of the white electorate in South Africa in October 1960 voted for a republic government (52% to 47%, reflecting the division between Afrikaans and English voters). Verwoerd consequently withdrew South Africa from the Commonwealth of Nations in March 1961 and South Africa became a republic on 31 May 1961.

In the crisis that followed the ANC and PAC were banned, and the 'armed struggle' was launched. Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and several others in the ANC leadership formed its military wing, Umkonto we Sizwe or MK (the Spear of the Nation), on a farm at Rivonia. Mandela acted as chief-of-staff, launching the MK's sabotage campaign in December 1961. The Rivonia farm was raided in 1963 and the consequent arrests resulted in the infamous 'Rivonia' Trial which lead to the imprisonment for life of several ANC leaders (on Robben Island). The PAC also set up its armed wing, POQO, which means independent ' or 'stand alone' (the PAC was completely opposed to multi-racial solutions in Africa) in 1961.

Following the ban the ANC and PAC were forced to go underground and operate from outside South Africa. Internal opposition was left to people like Steve Biko and the members of the Black Consciousness Movement.

In 1966, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 21 March, the anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre, as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

In 1996, on the 26th anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre, Nelson Mandela chose Sharpeville as the site to announce the signing of the new democratic constitution. The day is now commemorated as South Africa's Human Rights Day.

1. Africa since 1935 Vol VIII of the UNESCO General History of Africa, editor Ali Mazrui, published by James Currey, 1999, p259-60.
2. Truth and Reconciliation Commission report Vol 3 Chapter 6 para 29.
3. ibid para 28.
4. ibid para 32.
5. ibid para 34.
6. A History of South Africa by Frank Welsh, published by Harper Collins, 1998, ISBN 0-00-255561-1.

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