Tributes To Sharpeville: The First of Many…
There were many incidents of public gatherings or public disorder that took place in South Africa. Some were in secrete, some were private, some were disguised or simply hidden by other events like sports or church meetings and others could not be concealed. The most significant in history are those that were marked by mass killings by the police. Thus, giving South Africa a history filled with violence and injustices. The Sharpeville massacre is one of those that didn’t go by unnoticed as the first true mark of state violence and resistance in South Africa.
21 March 1960 is the first recorded incident of mass killings by the South African police.
The Sharpeville massacre is one of those that didn’t go by unnoticed as the first true mark of state violence and resistance in South Africa.
In those years protests were seen as an act of war against the state which called for the defense of the apartheid government from perceived external enemies and black mass gathering fit the profile. The common understanding amongst authorities was that “the native mentality does not allow them to gather for a peaceful demonstration. For them to gather means violence.” as revealed in a statement by Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar, the commanding officer of the police reinforcements at Sharpeville. Black people did not enjoy rights which meant they would not be heard or considered in major decisions that affected their lives or their governance thereof.
“…For them to gather means violence.”Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar, Commanding Officer Police Reinforcements, Sharpeville.
It is this belief that facilitated a way for extreme approaches and measures that were accepted in dealing with crowds. Protests and mass gatherings were mostly comprised of black people as they had the most grievances with the state of that time.
In the same breath the police officials who faced these early protesters did not have any training in handling crowds which is reflected in their response of using maximum force as their first call of action in 1960 in front of peaceful protesters. The Righteous Assemblies Act 17 of 1956 and the Suppression of Communism Act 44 of 1950 gave the state authorities unrestricted power to criminalise any kind of mass gatherings and demonstrations.
On the other hand, these forces were met by factions of people who found unity in their grief. Where a common understanding of ‘an injury to one is the concern of all’ was widely accepted. Politically many did not agree but when it came to the black man’s injustices and hinderance of basic human rights many if not all stood as one. Giving power and symbolism to the iconic fist that were seen in many mass gatherings at the time.
The lawmakers of the time had a clear political strategy to consolidate the apartheid laws
The protest against pass laws of the time was the first mass, united effort that black man and women embarked on, that history recorded and noticed internationally. Passes were just a symbol of the lack of freedom in being recognised as a human being. That was the outrage. The lawmakers of the time had a clear political strategy to consolidate the apartheid laws – which were rejected by the majority of the people of South Africa.
Besides the pass laws, the Sharpeville demonstrations were meant to highlight other grievances that included low wages, high rents in the townships, job reservation and economic apartheid which excluded blacks from better-paying jobs, sexual /immorality acts, the land tenure and geographic segregation acts, political representation acts that excluded blacks from political participation, the separate development and bantustans acts that did not mirror those of predominately white areas, the banning & detention without trial and state security acts of black political leaders and activists. All these speak to human rights and the resistance to pass laws and influx control was the one that best summarized the violation of basic human rights.
It was the beginning of many firsts, that we know South Africa to be alive in.
The Sharpeville Massacre is a mark of many firsts that followed in South Africa and internationally about the state of affairs of the country at the time. The first State of emergency was declared soon after. For the first time South Africa was condemned by the United Nations and the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 134 in which the Council’s voiced its anger at the policies and actions of the Government, offered their sympathies to the families of the victims and called upon the Government to initiate measures aimed at bringing about racial harmony based on equality and called upon it to abandon apartheid.
For the first time South Africa was forced to leave the Commonwealth of Nations and the first black South African received a Nobel Prize for Peace (Albert Luthuli) the following year.
It was a time of turmoil and stark contrasts. It was the beginning of many firsts, that we know South Africa to be alive in.