- The non-violent protest turned into one of the biggest bloodbaths in South African history
- When 300 armed officers faced off against 5000 protesters it was a recipe for disaster
- 51 years on we look back at that fateful day and hope that since then we have learned something
On the 21st of March 1960 what was meant to be a non-violent protest turned into a massacre which would change the face of South African politics forever.
The march was organised by the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), a splinter group of the ANC, in protest to the pass laws which restricted the movement of black South Africans throughout the country.
The point of the march was to purposefully get arrested as a form of protest but the plan was envisioned on a scale never before seen. The PAC hoped that thousands would be arrested, filling the jails beyond capacity and grinding the economy to a halt.
When the marchers reached the Sharpeville police station they were greeted by a large force of police officers. The crowd was let through but were prevented form entering the police station.
By midday 300 officers faced off against a crowd of 5000 protesters. A scuffle broke out and according to police the protesters began through stones, a panicked officer atop an armoured car open fire and the other officers followed suit.
69 people were killed and between 150-180 people were injured after the policed opened fire. The Sharpeville police were the only officers armed with live ammunition on the day.
Across the East Rand, police officers were equipped with police batons. The official inquiry revealed that many of the protesters who were shot were in the process of running away.
In memory of the event Dennis Brutus wrote a poem simply titled, A poem about Sharpeville.
A poem about Sharpeville
What is important
is not that seventy died:
nor even that they were shot in the back
retreating, unarmed, defenseless
and certainly not
the heavy caliber slug
that tore through a mother’s back
and ripped through the child in her arms
Because it epitomized oppression
and the nature of society
more clearly than anything else;
it was the classic event
Nowhere is racial dominance
more clearly defined
nowhere the will to oppress
more clearly demonstrated
what the world whispers
apartheid with snarling guns
the blood lust after
South Africa spills in the dust
Remember bullet-in-the-back day
And remember the unquenchable will for freedom
Remember the dead
and be glad.
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