March 21, 1960: The Sharpville Massacre


On March 21, 1960, in the South African township of Sharpeville, the police opened fire during a demonstration against segregation, killing 69 people and injuring 180 others.

There has been disagreement about the behavior of the crowd during the protest. While some said the crowd was demonstrating peacefully, others claim they had been hurling stones at the police officers, and that the crowd was moving toward the police station.

Photographer Ian Berry photographed the massacre. He believed, initially, that the police were firing blanks into the crowd.

March 21st is celebrated in South Africa as a public holiday, honoring human rights and those who died during the bloody massacre.


Sharpeville had existed for less than 2 decades. It was built in 1943, replacing Topville, a nearby township that overcrowded, causing illnesses such as pneumonia to spread widely. During this time, over 10,000 Africans were forcibly moved to Sharpeville.

Sharpeville had a high rate of unemployment and a higher rate of crime. Crime even captivated the youth, as children joined gangs and became involved with crime instead of going to school. On top of the city being riddled with crime and poverty, a new police station was built, and the officers were enthusiastic about deporting illegal residents.

Since the eighteenth century, South African governments had measures in place to restrict black South Africans in cities. "Pass laws" were created with the intention to control their movement. These pass laws were intended to segregate the population. They severely limited the movements of black African citizens by requiring them to carry pass books outside of their designated areas.

Leading up to the massacre, the government was attempting to use the existing "pass laws" to enforce racial segregation beyond what it was already doing, and planned to include women in the segregation, as well.

The African National Congress (ANC) wanted to end pass laws, and protests were planned to initiate the campaign against them. They were supposed to start on March 31, but when the rival Pan-Africanist Congress decided to launch its own campaign earlier, the ANC called for the protests to begin on March 21.


On the 21st of March, somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people joined up near the police station and, because not carrying passbooks was considered a crime, they did not carry theirs, offering up themselves for arrest in protest. The police were prepared, as smaller demonstrations had broken out the night before.

At 10:00 AM, the crowd was peaceful and festive. There weren't even that many police officers there to keep the peace. But the crowd continued to grow, up to 20,000 people. The mood became "ugly" as it grew, and nearly 130 police officers had to get to the scene. They were armed, though there is no evidence that suggests anyone in the crowd was.

In attempt to break up the crowd, F-86 Sabre jets approached within a hundred feet, flying low. But the protestors responded by hurling stones and rushing the barricades set up by police. Tear gas proved an unsuccessful deterrent for the crowd. At about 1:00 PM, the police attempted to arrest a protestor. The crowd surged forward, and the shooting started.

During the 40 second shooting, 69 people were killed, including 8 women and 10 children. Many people were shot in the back as they tried to run away, clearly not a threat to the police who were shooting. 180 people were injured, some paralyzed.

Police reports claim that the police force was young and inexperienced, and in the chaos of the protest, they panicked and opened fire. When other officers heard the gunshots, they fired too, leading to a deadly chain reaction. Given that less than 2 months before the massacre, 9 constables had been assaulted, killed and disembowelled during a raid, they may have been more paranoid and trigger happy.

Few of the policemen who were present had even received training on maintaining public order, and of the ones who did, some had been on duty for more than 24 hours with no sleep. The commanding officer of the team at Sharpeville said that "the native mentality does not allow them to gather for a peaceful demonstration. For them to gather means violence." However, he claims he did not give any orders to fire.


The black population of South Africa acted immediately, planning demonstrations, marches, riots and strikes. The country had to declare a state of emergency on March 30 and detained over 18,000 people.

Internationally, the Sharpeville shootings received attention, as well. Many shared their sympathies. The United Nations condemned the police for their actions, and passed Resolution 134, that offered sympathies to the families of those who had died, and called upon the government to create measures to bring racial equality and abandon apartheid.

Not everyone was critical, however. The Mississippi House of Representatives supported the South African government's "steadfast policy of segregation and the staunch adherence to their traditions in the face of overwhelming external agitation." Nice, Mississippi.

In 1994, Human Rights Day was created as a national holiday on March 21, commemorating the lives lost during the massacre. Additionally, when signing the Constitution of South Africa on December 10, 1996, Nelson Mandela selected Sharpeville as the site to do it. In 1998, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made an official ruling that the police actions were human rights violations and the force used was not necessary for a gathering of unarmed protestors.

UNESCO also commemorates March 21, as International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. On the 42nd anniversary of the massacre, Nelson Mandela opened a memorial for the 69 people who lost their lives that day.

Despite the protests in the country and the condemnation around the world (except for in the southern U.S., of course), South Africa's apartheid system was not ended until 1986, more than 2 decades after 69 people lost their lives trying to protest it.



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