THE EVENTS OF SHARPEVILLE (21 MARCH 1960), AND THE THREE WEEKS IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING IT, HAVE OFTEN BEEN DESCRIBED AS A DECISIVE TURNING-POINT IN MODERN SOUTH AFRICAN HISTORY. DOES A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF THE EVIDENCE HEAR OUT THAT VIEW?
“...one little boy had on an old blanket coat, which he held up behind his head, thinking, perhaps, that it might save him from the bullets. Some of the children, hardly as tall as the grass, were leaping like rabbits. Some were shot, too. Still the shooting went on... ” -Humphrey Tyler,
Witness and Assistant Editor of Drum Magazine
The Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and the events it precipitated had a profound and long lasting effect on South African society and the already volatile political climate of the time. This essay will contend that the unrestrained violence upon a peaceful demonstration proved to be a watershed moment that was decisive in determining the immediate future of the anti-Apartheid struggle, as well as determining the future direction of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. This essay will detail the massacre, the events that lead up to it and it will highlight the responses of the government, resistance movement and international community. I will argue that these responses had a long lasting effect on the future direction of the apartheid state and anti-apartheid movement, thus making it a decisive turning point in modern South African history.
Before one can appreciate the significance of the Sharpeville massacre, one must understand its historical background and political context. From 26 May 1948, South Africa was ruled by the National Party government, who came to power on the political platform of separateness, or Apartheid. As the rest of the western world moved to end racial segregation, South Africa entered a phase that saw sustained and institutionalised racism at the hands of a government who were representing the minority white race. Christopher Landsberg describes this period impassionedly, stating ‘the social engineering secured for whites a virtual monopoly of power-political, economic and social....Apartheid deliberately created poverty and racial inequalities (that) was at beast a sham democracy.’ It was the institutionalised racism, however, that eventually lead to the unique set of circumstances that enabled the tragedy at Sharpeville to occur.
Apartheid was implemented through a series of evolving laws from 1949 that directly affected all aspects of life for coloured people. Several laws already existed along racial lines, however, it was the National Party government that formalised its social policy on such laws. Prominent examples include the Mixed Marriage Act of 1949, the Immorality Act and the Population Registration Act of 1950 and the Bantu Education Act of 1953. These dictated that whites and non-whites could not marry or have sex, and that each person was officially designated a colour and race (and ultimately an identity) at the government’s discretion. Many families were broken up under these laws, in which some mixed raced families were reclassified, greatly disrupting –if not ending- many family relationships. To combat any opposition, the government created the Criminal Law Amendment Act which made any person associating with anyone who was protesting or repealing any law liable for criminal charges. The National Party also increased all forms of censorship and banned any organisation or publication pertaining to have communist links or sympathies, including several workers’ union, which had significant impacts for the predominately Black labour force. This was in line with international Cold War sentiment and, thus, the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 was not seen as extreme.
Understandably, resistance from oppressed racial groups intensified with time as these laws became more repressive and as their lives became increasingly restricted. Anti-apartheid and racial...