When World War II ended in 1945, industry in many countries of the world experienced a boom. South Africa also experienced the rapid industrial growth with surging demand for manufacturing as the world rebuilt. SASOL and ISCOR were the two state-owned enterprises responsible for the supply of oil and steel respectively. As the two companies grew, they became the largest employers in the Vereeniging area.

At the same time agriculture was experiencing a downturn and work in the countryside was not as profitable. Black South Africans migrated in large numbers to Vereeniging to obtain gainful employment in these booming parastatals. The national government had enacted legislation to prevent the mass exodus of black labourers to ensure even distribution of labour across all industries. The Native Laws Amendment Act of 1952 ensured that white industries, irrespective of performance were assured of black labour. The same law was also used to regulate the movement of black people, sections 10 (1) (a), (b), (c), and (d) stated that only Africans in long term, permanent or regular employment were allowed to reside in urban areas. The influx of black Africans in Vereeniging was a violation of this piece of legislation.

Map of Sharpeville.

Vereeniging had only one Black Township called Top Location. The rapid increase in the population of black Africans made it a very difficult area to police. The Vereeniging Town Council designed a new township for blacks, Sharpeville, that would be easier to monitor and control the movement of black Africans. They subsequently relocated all the residents of Top Location to Sharpeville where policing was stricter. As a way of preventing further migrations, rents were also raised significantly to deter newcomers from leaving the farms and settle in the township. During the same period black political activity was increasing drastically, the newly formed Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) had broken away from the African National Congress (ANC). The relocation and tighter policing only served to increase tensions in a rapidly growing township.

By the time 1960 arrived, Vereeniging Town Council was aggressively enforcing the Native Laws Amendment Act, commonly referred to as pass laws, to remove all black Africans deemed to be excess to the town’s labour requirements and return them to rural areas. That plus the suppression of political activity made Sharpeville reach boiling point. The PAC and ANC both had plans to protest the pass laws.

On March 21, 1960 the oppressed residents of Sharpeville marched to the police station without their ‘passes’ to hand themselves in for arrest for failure to comply with the law. Tragically, the police opened fire on the crowd killing 69 people. This massacre stoked the fires of revolution, the militarization of black political parties and international condemnation of the national government. Sharpeville was the start of the struggle.