March 21, 1960: South Africa’s day of infamy

On March 21, 1960, tens of thousands of black South Africans heeded the call by Robert Sobukwe’s Pan Africanist Congress to present themselves for arrest at police stations in a mass disobedience campaign.

They were protesting against the pass book, an apartheid passport allowing black African men over the age of 16 to live and work in cities and towns which were designated white by the apartheid government. Without it, they faced certain harassment and arrest.

Both the ANC and the breakaway PAC had identified 1960 as the year that the pass laws would be resisted, but it was Sobukwe’s PAC who issued a call to action on Saturday, March 19, for men to present themselves on Monday to be arrested and swamp the legal system, bringing the country and the regime, to its knees.

Pass law protests occurred throughout what is today Gauteng, with Sobukwe handing himself over for arrest in Orlando, Soweto, and minor symbolic efforts in other cities.

By midday, a crowd of 5 000 had gathered outside Sharpeville police station where there were 300 armed policemen behind the fence. The protesters had refused to disperse, demanding to be arrested instead, despite shows of force by the government that included the arrival of a Saracen armoured car and mock dive-bombing by Sabre fighter jets of the South African Air Force. .

Just after 1.15pm, someone in the crowd threw a rock, and a policeman atop the armoured car began shooting. The other policemen followed suit. For two minutes they fired, hitting most of the protesters in the back.

When they stopped, 69 people had been shot dead and 180 more had been wounded.

When news of the massacre reached Cape Town, protesters massed in Langa township. The police ordered them to disperse and then opened fire. Three died and a further 26 were wounded.

International condemnation was immediate and unequivocal, accompanied by a concerted disinvestment campaign by many foreign companies.

The apartheid government responded by declaring the first of what would be many states of emergencies, banning the ANC, PAC and South African Communist Party, and hunting down their leaders.

Many of them would go in to exile, with the ANC and the PAC opting to go underground – and indeed, begin the armed struggle.

On April 27, 1994, all South Africans were finally able to go to the polls as a nation. One of the first acts of the new nation, under a government of national unity, was to pass a Public Holidays Act, promulgating 12 public holidays a year – one of them being March 21, as Human Rights Day, honouring those who had perished in Sharpeville in 1960.

Less than 18 months later, South Africa’s constitution was adopted, enshrining the Bill of Rights as a cornerstone of the new democracy, with a specific reference to the freedoms of expression, religion, belief and opinion; freedom of assembly and association; and the freedom to live and move anywhere in the country among others. 

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