Sharpeville Massacre Focuses Global Awareness on Apartheid Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

About five thousand peaceful South African antiapartheid protesters were fired upon by South African police without warning. Sixty-nine were killed, and about three hundred were injured. The South African government then cracked down on protests, banning all public meetings, outlawing the Pan-Africanist Congress and the African National Congress, and declaring a national state of emergency.

Summary of Event

In 1948, when the white-controlled National Party National Party, South African came to power in South Africa, it established a legally enforced racial discrimination policy known as apartheid. The party’s apartheid policy classified all South Africans by race, as “Whites,” “Colored,” “Indian,” and “Natives” (later called “Bantu”). This policy would result in passage of the Population Registration Act (1950) Population Registration Act, South African (1950) and the Group Areas Act (1950) Group Areas Act, South African (1950) , which not only classified South Africans by race but also indicated where they could and could not reside. In the wake of these laws, the African National Congress African National Congress, South African (ANC), which had been formed in 1912 as an amalgam of political associations that had been working for African rights, began vociferously to demand freedom of movement, residence, and land ownership, as well as black enfranchisement. Sharpeville Massacre (1960) Massacres Apartheid Racial and ethnic discrimination;South African apartheid South Africa;apartheid Human rights;South Africa [kw]Sharpeville Massacre Focuses Global Awareness on Apartheid (Mar. 21, 1960) [kw]Massacre Focuses Global Awareness on Apartheid, Sharpeville (Mar. 21, 1960) [kw]Global Awareness on Apartheid, Sharpeville Massacre Focuses (Mar. 21, 1960) [kw]Apartheid, Sharpeville Massacre Focuses Global Awareness on (Mar. 21, 1960) Sharpeville Massacre (1960) Massacres Apartheid Racial and ethnic discrimination;South African apartheid South Africa;apartheid Human rights;South Africa [g]Africa;Mar. 21, 1960: Sharpeville Massacre Focuses Global Awareness on Apartheid[06450] [g]South Africa;Mar. 21, 1960: Sharpeville Massacre Focuses Global Awareness on Apartheid[06450] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Mar. 21, 1960: Sharpeville Massacre Focuses Global Awareness on Apartheid[06450] [c]Human rights;Mar. 21, 1960: Sharpeville Massacre Focuses Global Awareness on Apartheid[06450] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Mar. 21, 1960: Sharpeville Massacre Focuses Global Awareness on Apartheid[06450] [c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 21, 1960: Sharpeville Massacre Focuses Global Awareness on Apartheid[06450] Mandela, Nelson Sobukwe, Robert

Segregation stripped black South Africans of their basic human rights. There then began a series of struggles by blacks to restore those rights, one of which resulted in the Sharpeville massacre of March 21, 1960, in which Africans confronted the apartheid regime in a protest designed to be nonviolent. The massacre that resulted from the protest became one of the most prominent political massacres of the twentieth century. Policemen fired into a crowd of African demonstrators, killing sixty-nine people and wounding hundreds of others. The demonstrators were protesting the so-called pass laws, which restricted the movement of Africans in the enclave. The white minority regime had passed a law requiring each black South African to carry a “passbook” (dompas) at all times. Each book contained its owner’s fingerprints, photo, and information regarding permissible access to non-black areas. Failure to carry a passbook was grounds for immediate arrest. Blacks were also prohibited from gathering in groups of ten or more.

In defiance of the pass law and taking a cue from the plan of the ANC to begin massive demonstrations against the pass law on March 31, 1960, about five thousand people converged on the municipal offices and the local police station in Sharpeville Township. They were organized by the newly established Pan-Africanist Congress Pan-Africanist Congress[PanAfricanist Congress] (PAC), the radical black antiapartheid and nationalist Nationalism;Africa Pan-Africanism[PanAfricanism] movement formed by Robert Sobukwe in 1959, and they offered themselves up for arrest for not carrying their passes. The police, unnerved by the presence of the protesters and a scuffle at the gate of the police station fired into the crowd and created a massive stampede.

When the smoke cleared, sixty-nine people were dead and hundreds of others were injured. Among the dead were eight women and ten children, and of the injured identified, thirty-nine were women and nineteen were children. Fifty-two of the dead were shot in the back, which signified that even when the crowd had turned to flee, the police had continued to fire shots. Although the police would later help in attending to the injured, seventy-seven of the injured would later be arrested in their hospital beds. Sobukwe and other leaders of the antiapartheid movement were arrested. Sobukwe was jailed for three years for his role in provoking the Sharpeville incident. A special legal amendment known as the “Sobukwe clause” was later passed to authorize the police to detain the PAC leader indefinitely and without trial.

The Sharpeville incident was momentous, as it became a starting point for the mass movement opposing black oppression in South Africa. The reaction to the incident was spontaneous. There began massive demonstrations, strikes, and riots throughout South Africa. In deference to the outpouring of emotion locally and internationally, the pass laws were temporarily suspended, but on March 30, 1960, the government had no option but to declare a state of emergency that witnessed the arrest and detention of about eighteen thousand people. Many of them were released after screening. Civil claims arose from the Sharpseville killings, but in an attempt to preempt or subvert these, the South African government passed the Indemnity Act (1961), which indemnified the government and its officials against all claims resulting from the actions taken by those officials during the crisis.

The demonstrations also resulted in the proscription of the two nationalist movements, the ANC and the PAC, with the passage of the Unlawful Organizations Act Unlawful Organizations Act, South African (1960) of April 8, 1960. The ban on these organizations became the major catalyst for the creation of the Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation Spear of the Nation ), the armed wing of the ANC, and the Poqo (Standing Alone Standing Alone ) the military wing of the PAC. Both military groups ultimately went underground and began to operate from exile. Members of the predominantly white Liberal Party, Liberal Party, South African who had campaigned for a universal franchise, also suffered in subsequent police raids and arrests. The massive manhunt for the leaders of the antiapartheid movement would later lead to the exile of some of the PAC activists and members of the youth wing of the ANC. These would help create a strong South African expatriate community that would become central to the internationalization of the antiapartheid struggle.

On April 1, 1960, the United Nations United Nations;and South Africa[South Africa] Security Council convened to deliberate on the oppression of the South African people by the apartheid regime. The campaign at the United Nations to introduce economic sanctions against South Africa was vetoed by Britain and the United States. Nevertheless, the condemnations from other governments and organizations around the world would result in the isolation of the apartheid government in the international community. Over time, the international campaign to force the South African government to end apartheid and the calls for economic sanctions against its policies became strident. With its refusal to yield to the calls, South Africa was forced out of several international bodies and organizations, including the British Commonwealth.

The date of the massacre, March 21, remained symbolic. In 1966, the U.N. General Assembly proclaimed March 21 as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. In South Africa’s antiapartheid struggles, the day was usually commemorated with strikes, protest marches, and speeches. It was also seen as a period for mourning and defiance in the days of apartheid. In post-apartheid South Africa, it is usually observed as Human Rights Day, a national holiday.


The Sharpeville massacre was a manifestation of the awkward interracial relations in South Africa. The South African government, controlled by the white minority community that defended its privileges by the use of coercion and brute force, came in direct conflict with the black, colored, and Indian races in the country. The massacre resulted in widespread arrests of antiapartheid activists. It was following this massacre of nonviolent protesters that antiapartheid leaders began to adopt a wider variety of strategies for bringing about their goals, including violent methods of protest, and the armed wings of the ANC and the PAC both date from this time. The government, for its part, used the growing effectiveness of these “subversive” organizations as an excuse to introduce draconian laws that would stifle their activities within South Africa.

The injustice of the Sharpeville incident—the image of peaceful protesters shot in the back as they fled police bullets—helped globalize the campaign against apartheid. International economic and political efforts to end state-enforced racial discrimination resulted in a significant loss of capital by South African businesses and by the government itself, and this loss would lead the South African government to impose stringent currency controls. The incident further promoted developments in the arts, as it influenced artistic recreations, songs, concerts, and music. “Senzeni Na?” "What Have We Done" (traditional)[What Have We Done] "Senzeni Na?" (traditional)[Senzeni Na] (“What Have We Done?”) is a post-Sharpeville dirge memorializing the event. Several other lyrics and songs were created to show the power of protest songs in uniting and binding a repressed people. Nelson Mandela would later use a commemorative visit to the Sharpeville township on December 10, 1996, formally to announce the signing of the nation’s new democratic constitution. Sharpeville Massacre (1960) Massacres Apartheid Racial and ethnic discrimination;South African apartheid South Africa;apartheid Human rights;South Africa

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frankel, Philip. An Ordinary Atrocity: Sharpeville and Its Massacre. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Emotionally charged analysis of the defining moments of the antiapartheid struggle in South Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gerhart, Gail M. Black Power in South Africa: The Evolution of an Ideology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. Detailed analysis of the growth and development of black resistance to the apartheid system in South Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Meara, Dan. Forty Lost Years: The Apartheid State and the Politics of the National Party, 1948-1994. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998. One of most comprehensive works on the apartheid system, its career, and its disintegration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sampson, Anthony. Mandela: The Authorised Biography. London: HarperCollins, 1999. Provides a detailed historical analysis of Mandela’s and the public struggles against the apartheid system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waldmeir, Patti. Anatomy of a Miracle: The End of Apartheid and the Birth of the New South Africa. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. The product of a careful analysis of South Africa’s history. Provides an overview of the country’s complex history.

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