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At the annual conference of the ANC held in Durban on 16 December 1959, the President General of the ANC, Chief Albert Luthuli, announced that 1960 was going to be the ‘Year of the Pass’. Through a series of mass actions, the ANC planned to launch a nationwide anti-pass campaign on 31 March the anniversary of the 1919 anti-pass campaign.

A week later, a breakaway group from the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress held its first conference in Johannesburg. At this conference, it was announced that the PAC would launch its own anti-pass campaign.

Crowds fleeing from bullets on the day of the Massacre. © Baileys African History Archive (BAHA)

Early in 1960 both the ANC and PAC embarked on a feverish drive to prepare their members and Black communities for the proposed nationwide campaigns. The PAC called on its supporters to leave their passes at home on the appointed date and gather at police stations around the country, making themselves available for arrest. The campaign slogan was ‘NO BAIL! NO DEFENCE! NO FINE!’ The PAC argued that if thousands of people were arrested, then the jails would be filled and the economy would come to a standstill.

Although the protests were anticipated, no one could have predicted the consequences and the repercussions this would have for South African and world politics. An article entitled ‘PAC Campaign will be test’, published in the 19 March 1960 issue of Contact the Liberal Party newspaper  describes the build up to the campaign:

“..the Pan Africanist Congress will shortly launch a nationwide campaign for the total abolition of the pass laws. The exact date on which the campaign will start is still unknown. The decision lies with the P.A.C. president, Mr. R.M. Sobukwe. But members say that the campaign will begin ‘shortly - within a matter of weeks”.

At a press conference held on Saturday 19th March 1960, PAC President Mr. Robert Sobukwe announced that they were going to embark on an anti pass campaign on Monday the 21st.

According to PAC leader Robert Sobukwe’s ‘Testimony about the Launch of the Campaign’:

"...the campaign was made known on the 18th of March. Circulars were printed and distributed to the members of the organisation and on the 21st of March, on Monday, in obedience to a resolution they had taken, the members of the Pan Africanist Congress surrendered themselves at various police stations around the Country".

At the press conference Sobukwe emphasized that the campaign should be conducted in a spirit of absolute non-violence and that the PAC saw it as the first step in Black people’s bid for total independence and freedom by 1963 (Cape Times, 1960).

Sobukwe is quoted as having declared that “African people have entrusted their whole future to us. And we have sworn that we are leading them, not to death, but to life abundant. My instructions, therefore, are that our people must be taught now and continuously that in this campaign we are going to observe absolute non-violence.

On the morning of 21 March PAC members walked around Sharpeville waking people up, urging them to take part in the demonstration. Other PAC members tried to stop bus drivers from going on duty; the result was that there was no transport taking Sharpeville residents to work in Vereeniging. Many people set out for work on bicycles or on foot, but some were intimidated by PAC members who threatened to burn their passes or ‘lay hands on them’ if they went to work (Reverend Ambrose Reeves, 1966). However, many people joined the procession quite willingly.

Early on the 21st the local PAC leaders first gathered in a field not far from the Sharpeville police station, when a sizable crowd of people had joined them they proceeded to the police station - chanting freedom songs and calling out the campaign slogans "Izwe lethu" (Our land); “Awaphele amapasti" (Down with passes); "Sobukwe Sikhokhele" (Lead us Sobukwe); “Forward to Independence, Tomorrow the United States of Africa".

The day of the Massacre, mourning the dead andgetting over the shock of the event. © Baileys African History Archive (BAHA)

When the marchers reached Sharpeville's police station a heavy contingent of policemen were lined up outside, many on top of British-made Saracen armored cars. Mr. Tsolo and other members of the PAC Branch Executive continued to advance - in conformity with the novel PAC motto of ‘Leaders in Front’ - and asked the White policeman in command to let them through so that they could surrender themselves for refusing to carry passes. Initially the police commander refused but much later, towards around 11h00, they were let through. The chanting of freedom songs was picking up and the slogans were being repeated with greater volume. Journalists who rushed there from other areas, after receiving word that the campaign was a runaway success, ... confirm that for all their singing and shouting the crowd’s mood was more festive than belligerent (David M. Sibeko, 1976).

By mid-day approximately 300 armed policemen faced a crowd of approximately 5000 people. At 13h15 a small scuffle began near the entrance of the police station,  a policeman was accidently pushed over and the crowd began to move forward to see what was happening.

According to the police, protesters began to stone them and, without any warning, one of the policemen on the top of an armoured car panicked and opened fire. His colleagues followed suit and opened fire. The firing lasted for approximately two minutes, leaving 69 people dead and, according to the official inquest, 180 people seriously wounded. The policemen were apparently jittery after a recent event in Durban where nine policemen were shot.

Unlike elsewhere on the East Rand where police used baton when charging at resisters, the police at Sharpeville used live ammunition. Eyewitness accounts attest to the fact that the people were given no warning to disperse. Eye witness accounts and evidence later led to an official inquiry, attested to the fact that large number of people were shot in the back as they were fleeing the scene. The presence of armoured vehicles and air force fighter jets overhead, also point to unnecessary provocation, especially as the crowd was unarmed and determined to stage a non-violent protest.

According to an account from Humphrey Tyler, the assistant editor at Drum magazine, “The police have claimed they were in desperate danger because the crowd was stoning them. Yet only three policemen were reported to have been hit by stones - and more than 200 Africans were shot down. The police also have said that the crowd was armed with 'ferocious weapons', which littered the compound after they fled.

I saw no weapons, although I looked very carefully, and afterwards studied the photographs of the death scene. While I was there I saw only shoes, hats and a few bicycles left among the bodies. The crowd gave me no reason to feel scared, though I moved among them without any distinguishing mark to protect me, quite obvious with my white skin. I think the police were scared though, and I think the crowd knew it.”

Within hours the news of the killing at Sharpeville was flashed around the world.

To read more witness accounts of the Sharpeville Massacre, click on the 'Witness accounts' tab above.

Other protests around the country on 21 March 1960

On the morning of 21 March Robert Sobukwe left his house in Mofolo, a suburb of Soweto and began walking to the Orlando police station. Along the way small groups of people joined him. In Pretoria a small group of six people presented themselves at the Hercules police station. In addition other small groups of PAC activists presented themselves at police stations in Durban and East London. However, the police simply took down the protesters names and did not arrest anyone.

When the news of the Sharpeville massacre reached Cape Town a group of between 1000 to 5000 protestors gathered at the Langa Flats bus terminus around 17h00 on 21 March 1960. This was in direct defiance of the government’s country-wide ban on public meetings and gatherings of more than ten persons. The police ordered the crowd to disperse within 3 minutes. When protesters reconvened in defiance, the police charged at them with batons, tear gas and guns. Three people were killed and 26 others were injured. Langa Township was gripped by tension and in the turmoil that ensued, In the violence that followed an employee of the Cape Times newspaper Richard Lombard was killed by the rioting crowd.

To read more about the protests in Cape Town click on the ‘aftermath’ tab.