Cape Town – Early edition reporting on the PAC’s pass protest on March 21,1960 bears an ominous trace of the genesis of the imminent crisis that would define the last long battle for political equality in South Africa.
Cape Town readers learned the “police station at Sharpeville is virtually besieged by force of numbers; and the only way the police can make contact with the station is to force their way through with Saracens” (police vehicles).
The report went on: “About 60 policemen armed with rifles stood guard while Sabre jets dived over the mob at Sharpeville in an attempt to cow the crowd. But the intimidation only seemed to anger the Natives.”
Within hours, the front page news – in Cape Town, and around the world – came as a jolt: “80 casualties as police fire on mob – pass protest erupts”.
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The first report, evidently based in large part on the police version of events, said: “The clash came after the thousands in the township square, facing the police Saracens, began to stone the vehicles and men. The police replied with rifle and sten-gun fire.”
The exact death toll wasn’t known at that moment – but the 69 dead of the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 were destined to be scored in national and international memory as a token of the bloody cost of the country’s apartheid race experiment.
The only first-hand journalistic account came from the man who would later become the founding editor of Weekend Argus. Humphrey Tyler was, at the time, reporting for Drum magazine.
His account suggests there was some stone-throwing, but the overriding impression was of a peaceful, if intent, demonstration taken entirely by surprise by the hail of bullets that cut them down.
Tyler recounts approaching the police precinct amid “grinning, cheerful” crowds.
“There were sudden shrill cries of ‘Izwe Lethu’ – women’s voices, it sounded like – from near the police, and I could see a small section of the crowd swirl around the Saracens and hands went up in the Africanist salute. Then the shooting started. We heard the chatter of a machine gun, then another, then another.”
He wrote of the mayhem: “Some of the children, hardly as tall as the grass, were leaping like rabbits. Some were shot, too. Still the shooting went on. One of the policemen was standing on top of a Saracen, and it looked as though he was firing into the crowd. He was swinging it around in a wide arc from his hip as though he were panning a movie camera.”
Afterwards, surveying the “death scene”, he “saw only shoes, hats and a few bicycles left among the bodies”.
Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd betrayed scant sense of alarm – a day later he was content to tell Parliament the anti-pass revolt was not a meaningful indicator of popular rejection of apartheid, but merely a “periodic phenomenon”.
In the decades to follow, there would be mass arrests, clampdowns, lulls, trials, and an enduring sense of false security – brutally punctured now and then by “death scenes” that even the most conservative whites could not wish away.
The shocking details in the report, “14 shot dead, many injured, in Uitenhage”, of March 1985 – “the highest number of deaths in a single incident in continuing Eastern Cape unrest” – illustrates the lasting spiral of violence spawned by apartheid intransigence.
The immediate consequences of Sharpeville were the banning of the only organisations capable of engaging meaningfully with the government on behalf of the black majority; that begat the armed struggle, the mounting international isolation of South Africa, the critical widening of the gap between South Africans in how they imagined or framed their necessarily shared future, and the prolonging of the suffering of black people.
But apartheid obduracy had a while to go yet.
A year after Sharpeville, a white referendum having affirmed the country’s republican status, South Africa left the Commonwealth, the report of March 15, 1961 (“South Africa will be ‘out’”) telling readers: “The South African Prime Minister, Dr H F Verwoerd, has withdrawn his application for South Africa’s continuing membership of the Commonwealth as a republic. This was announced in the final communique from the conference to-day.
“The announcement came after leaders of the Commonwealth had spent 15 hours in a vain attempt to reconcile the views of the opponents of Dr Verwoerd’s apartheid policy.”
The “dramatic development climaxed a quarrel unprecedented in the history of the Commonwealth”.
In its isolation, South Africa developed delusions of its own status and significance in the greater geopolitical contest of the Cold War.
In the mid-1970s, only months before the next pivotal crisis – the Soweto Uprising of June 1976 – Prime Minister John Vorster told guests at the Jan van Riebeeck High School jubilee celebration at the City Hall on March 18 that “more and more people were becoming scared to step forward and take up the fight for democracy”.
If democracy was to survive, “people, and particularly, leaders of the Western world, would have to come forward to fight for it”.
A more ironic sentiment could not have been expressed at that moment, for if anyone showed a willingness to fight for democracy from 1976 on, it was the victims of his own government’s policies.
But a second irony is that the Nationalists themselves were having second thoughts about their grand scheme which, more of them were beginning to feel, should be modified and perhaps even, in part, dismantled.
Early in the next decade, the whiff of a dilution of apartheid outraged the more conservative elements in the party, leading to the “broedertwis” or family feud which gave modern international English two new words: “verligte” (enlightened) and “verkrampte” (reactionary).
The verkramptes weren’t to be trifled with: on March 20, 1982, the Weekend Argus front page lead (“6 000 hail Dr T’s party”) told of the breakaway Nats forming their own party, the Conservative Party, under the humourless Dr Andries Treurnicht.
In a speech “punctuated by roars of approval and standing ovations” from the throng packed into Pretoria’s aptly named Skilpad (tortoise) Hall, Dr T spelled out the new party’s guiding principles, chief among which were rejecting “power-sharing” (with blacks), and favouring “old-style apartheid”.
Two days later, the daily paper led with a story about the managing director of Nasionale Pers (a bastion of Afrikaner nationalism since its founding in 1915), Mr D P de Villiers, declaring that the “master plan” of apartheid had failed and must be scrapped and replaced by something new, based on the “facts and realities”.
The report said: “(De Villiers) said fundamental structural reform was required over the whole spectrum of political, economic and social life in this country because of a combination of moral and strategic reasons.”
And so it came to pass. Eventually.
A decade later, almost to the day, “white South Africa” – acting for the last time as the minority agency of the country’s fate – went to the polls in a referendum that proved to be reformist President FW de Klerk’s decisive master stroke against his conservative opposition, still – now apoplectically – led by Treurnicht.
The simple question De Klerk put to voters – knowing his reach would exceed the limits of National Party support to include the liberal voters of the Democratic Party, and even others who might have found the DP too tame or fusty – was whether constitutional negotiations with the black majority should continue.
Even the ANC – fiercely opposed in principle though it was to the idea of whites voting to determine the future of the country – willed paler citizens to do the right thing.
The result – a landslide victory – devastated conservatives and helped clear the way for the historic democratic transition of 1994.
March 1992 was a euphoric moment, captured in the headline “Yes! Yes! Yes!” over a report which told of the Western Cape’s delivering a nearly 85% Yes-vote tally, cementing De Klerk’s landslide victory.
In the somewhat more measured report, “Sighs of relief but euphoria ‘must not obscure the rocky road ahead’”, British politicians, media and anti-apartheid campaigners welcomed the outcome.
However, many cautioned that “the euphoria should not obscure the very real problems the country still faced in the shape of a shaky economy, widespread violence and the continued smouldering antagonism from the hard right”.
As it happened, the blood-letting actually worsened – but there was no doubt, in March 1992, that the legislative edifice of apartheid was going to be swept away, come what may.
In another late March just three years later, the obstinate conservatism, the bloodshed, the decades of trial were all over when Queen Elizabeth returned to the country for the first time since her visit with her father, King George VI, in 1947, “to see for myself what is little short of a miracle”.
If, in the 1990s, there was a missappreciation of the scale of the renovation that the costs of apartheid would visit on the future, the institutions and budding habits of mind that define democratic South Africa in 2017 express a near universal aspiration to human rights which, in
1960, was chronically undermined by fear, narrow-mindedness and ideological
The Sharpeville massacre was a pivotal moment in 1960, but, as the following timeline shows, it was a portentous year for other reasons.
* January 24
Cato Manor riots in Durban result in the deaths of nine policemen.
Rebellion in Pondoland prompts ANC leader Albert Luthuli to warn whites that black resentment is mounting.
* February 3
British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan delivers his ‘wind of change’ speech in parliament.
ANC announces that its anti-pass campaign will start at the end of March.
* March 21
Police open fire on Sharpeville protesters, killing 69. Protests spread and armed forces are on alert. Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd tells parliament the riots are not a reaction to apartheid but a “periodic phenomenon”.
* March 27
Pass laws are briefly suspended – until April 6.
* March 28
Oliver Tambo leaves South Africa illegally on instruction of the ANC to continue its work outside the country. Albert Luthuli is detained until August when he is tried, fined £100 and given a six-month suspended sentence.
* March 30
State of emergency is declared in 80 out of 300 magisterial districts.
* April 1
UN Security Council deplores police action in the country and calls for the abandonment of apartheid.
* April 7
Under the Unlawful Organisations Act, the ANC and PAC are banned for a minimum of one year. Only four Native Representatives and members of the new Progressive Party vote against the law.
* April 9
Attempted assassination of Verwoerd at the Rand Easter Show by an allegedly mentally unstable white farmer.
* May/ June
First boycotts of South African goods begin in many countries.
* May 4
PAC leader Robert Sobukwe is sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for incitement. He refuses the aid of an attorney or leave to appeal, on the grounds that the court has no jurisdiction over him because it cannot be considered either a court of law or a court of justice.
* May 6
Parliament is told 18 000 people have been detained since the proclamation of the emergency. The emergency is lifted on August 31.
Representation of blacks in parliament ends.
* October 5
Whites vote in favour of establishing a republic of South Africa. (Source: Apartheid, An Illustrated History.)