A key element of the aparthied system was the so-called Pass Laws. They were essentially internal passports, carried by blacks and designed to restrict people’s movement. They were introduced by the white government so as to exercise control over people’s mobility. They could direct workers as the economy dictated, for example into agricultural areas.
The idea of Pass Laws was not new, and indeed, neither was it confined to South Africa, although they were certainly used there from around 1800. In the 1950s, however, the (white) government started using the Pass Laws to bar vlack people from zones designated “white only”. Also, hitherto the laws had applied to men only, and now the regime wanted them to apply to women, too.
Unsurprisingly, these pass books were unpopular with those who were expected to carry them, and were repeatedly the focal point of campaigns and demonstrations over the years. Pass books were often symbollically burned, One such campaign started in March 1960.
From there we hone in to Sharpeville in the Transvaal, a relatively new suburb, built complete with police station. On the morning of 21 March 1960, this police station was manned by under twenty officers. A protest of 5-10,000 people followed, with protesters goading the police to arrest them for not carrying their passbooks,
During the morning, the crowds swelled to around 20,000. The police station received reinforcements, too. Their manpower increased to around 200. By now, the police were armed with rifles and sub machine guns. There is evidence that the crowd were armed only with stones.
What happened next becomes blurry. Police have always denied that there was a specific order to “fire”. Even years later, when a free South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigated the event, the best guess was that inexperienced police officers, spooked by the protestors, had opened fire of their own volition.
Of the result, however, there is no doubt. 69 deaths, and 180 injuries. Many of the protesters were shot in the back, as they attempted to flee. The shooting was finished in just 30s. or so, but the occasion was probably the first nail in the coffin for apartheid itself.
Today, the world commemorates 61 years since the Sharpeville Massacre.