Wednesday, March 21, 2007

March 21

By the early 1960s, the apartheid government of South Africa had instituted an extraordinary series of restrictions intended to humiliate the majority black population. Driven by the racist ideology of the Herstigte National Party (HNP), the exclusion and demotion of blacks was secured over a period of roughly a decade after the end of World War II. For resistance groups like the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress, the “six unjust laws” passed during the 1950s were regarded with special disdain. In addition to the Group Areas Act, the Suppression of Communism Act, the Coloured Voters Act and the Bantu Authorities Act, the South African state instituted pass laws requiring blacks over the age of 16 to carry dompas (passbooks) that indicated whether their presence was allowed in a particular urban area -- and for how long. By the early 1970s, more than a million black South Africans had been arrested for pass law violations.

On 21 March 1960, demonstrations against the pass laws led to sixty-nine deaths in Sharpeville, where police opened fire on an unarmed crowd of 300 protestors. Led by the PAC, large demonstrations took place across the Transvaal that day, pre-empting similar demonstrations planned by the rival ANC for the following week. PAC leaders had issued numerous statements and conferred with the South African and international press to explain that the March 21 demonstrations would be peaceful. As planned, the demonstrators were asked to march to local police stations without their dompas, singing and chanting “Awaphele ampasti” (“Down with the passes”). As one participant recalled later,
At the police station [in Sharpeville] we sat down, we were singing hymns, you know it was just a jolly atmosphere. We were singing these hymns as Christians because we were just rejoicing. And we didn’t know what will follow thereafter. We were just joyous because we thought that same afternoon we would get a message. Everybody was taking his feelings out.

Predictably, the authorities responded with something less than toleration -- crowds in Evaton were scattered by low-flying jets, while those in Vanderbijlpark were pounded with batons and tear gas. In Sharpeville, anywhere from 50-75 police officers -- inexperienced and frightened, according to most accounts -- began shooting around 1:15 p.m., allegedly in response to rocks being heaved in their direction. No order to disperse was issued. Within minutes, scores lay dead and wounded, most of them shot in the back as they tried to flee. Many of the wounded were later arrested in their hospital beds.

As Sharpeville Police Commander D.H. Pienaar explained,
The native mentality does not allow Africans to gather for peaceful demonstrations. For them to gather means violence. I do not know how many we shot. It all started when hordes of natives surrounded the police station. My car was struck with a stone. If they do these things they must learn their lessons the hard way.
In 1961, the South African parliament voted to indemnify the police officers against criminal charges or civil suits resulting from the massacre at Sharpeville. Within a year, the armed struggle in South Africa had commenced.

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