Wednesday, March 24, 2010

50th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre

Sunday was the fiftieth anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, a day now called Human Rights Day, which was celebrated with rare political unity. According to The Sowetan a service was held at the Sharpeville cricket stadium which was attended by members of the ANC, United Democratic Movement, Democratic Alliance, African People's Convention, Independent Democrats and Inkatha Freedom Party. Each of the political parties present was given two minutes to deliver speeches. Keynote speaker Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said the people had to take ownership of history both as various political organisations and members of society. “A common ownership of our history is the basis of nation building and must never be undermined by any interest group based on the subjectivity of race, class or ideology,” he said. (picture GALLO/GETTY)

The Sharpeville Massacre was a brutal event which shaped South African politics, both black and white for the next half a century. White police killed 69 black people and wounded 178 during a demonstration against segregation laws. While the massacre was instrumental in focussing world anger on the apartheid system, it also exacerbated political tensions within the black community between the ANC and the breakaway Pan Africanist Congress, which exist to this day.

Sharpeville was a small township built to service the white industrial cities of Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging. Here itinerant black workers would live in shanty-towns and earned a pittance in the nearby coal and steel industries. On 21 March 1960 the PAC organised a peaceful protest as part of their campaign against the pass system for black South Africans which severely limited their movements. PAC was a hardline organisation founded a year earlier as a breakaway from the ANC after the latter instituted its Freedom Charter with its commitment to a non racial South Africa.

The protests against the pass laws were the ANC’s idea and were due to start on 31 March 1960. But the PAC pre-empted them with the Sharpeville protest. On 21 March, about 6,000 people converged on the local police station offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying pass books. There were a small number of officers inside the station but they were not too worried as the atmosphere was peaceful. But as the crowd grew during the day, it got more tense. Police rushed in 130 reinforcements in Saracen armoured cars. They were supported by sabre jets who buzzed the crowd in an effort to scatter them.

When the crowd responded by throwing stones, the officer began making arrests. A fight broke out and the crowd advanced towards the police fence. What happened next is disputed. Hendrik Verwoerd, the then prime minister claimed that the protesters had shot first – though no arms were found on any of the protesters or victims. The police report later that year said inexperienced and panicky officers opened fire setting off a chain reaction. However evidence given at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission 34 years later said the police action was deliberate.

What was not disputed was the death toll. 69 died including 8 women and 10 children, and over 180 were injured, including 31 women and 19 children. Many were shot in the back. In the week that followed, blacks across the country were enraged and there were demonstrations, protest marches, strikes and riots. On 30 March the government declared a state of emergency and arrested almost 20,000 people. The UN condemned the massacre and a year later the UN Security Council passed resolution 134 concerning ”the situation arising out of the large-scale killings of unarmed and peaceful demonstrators against racial discrimination and segregation in the Union of South Africa”. Of the permanent members only Britain and France abstained and foreign investors quickly pulled out of the country. Sharpeville played a crucial part in the gradual isolation of racist South Africa.

As a result of the massacre both the PAC and the ANC were banned leading to the radicalisation of both organisations and formation of their military wings. All of these events would lead to the ultimate collapse of the apartheid regime in the late 1980s. Author Millard W. Arnold said the ban and heavy-handed crackdown had "welded together three generations of black people united in their opposition to Apartheid." South Africa would have to endure 30 more years of pain before Sharpeville could be forgiven, if never forgotten. The TRC would eventually find the police actions constituted "gross human rights violations in that excessive force was unnecessarily used to stop a gathering of unarmed people” but its terms of reference meant that no one was charged for the crime. Perhaps it is best it is so. It means only the marginalised PAC (which got 0.27 percent of the electoral vote in 2009) still look back ruefully on Sharpeville and think what might have been.

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