Motsane Getrude Seabela, Curator Anthropology; DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History



In 1910 South Africa adopted its first constitution that united White South Africans and afforded them certain rights, protection and privilege, which were denied Black South Africans. With the advent of Apartheid in 1948, Blacks’ rights were further violated through various legislations. This infringements of human rights were met with great discontent and protest by the Black population. Among the legislations imposed on Blacks was the Pass Laws of 1952. The Pass Laws were designed to control the movement of Black people. All Black men over 16 years were required to carry pass books, which would document where they had been and for what purpose. Informally passbooks were referred to as ‘dompas’ translating ‘dumb pass’ in English.


A build up towards the anti-pass campaign and the 21 March 1960 massacre

In November 1958 the Africanist group split from the African National Congress (ANC). Subsequent to the breakaway, the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) was founded in April 1959 and pledged to “overthrow White domination.” Its leader at the time was Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, then a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand. Some quarters criticised the PAC policy for its ‘African exclusiveness’. However, in their response, “the Africanists postulated that because of the material position of the Africans in the Union, it is only they who can be interested in the complete overhaul of the country’s contemporary structure”. The perception thereafter was that the Africanists are anti-white. Robert Sobukwe in reply asserted: “We aim politically at the government of the Africans by the Africans for the Africans, with everybody who owes his only loyalty to Africa and who is prepared to accept the democratic rule of an African majority being regarded as an African.” He added: “We guarantee no minority rights because we are fighting precisely that group-exclusiveness, which those who plead for minority rights would like to perpetuate. It is our view that if we have guaranteed individual liberties, we have given the highest guarantee necessary and possible.” Under such a system, Sobukwe sees no reason why a predominantly Black electorate should not return a White man to Parliament, for colour will count for nothing in a “free, democratic Africa.”.

In December 1959 both the ANC and PAC announced that they would run anti-pass campaigns the following year. The ANC had planned to start their campaign on 31 March 1960. By February of 1960 the PAC’s leadership had refined their strategy to achieve the ending of the pass laws. The plan was that on the chosen day, “African men should leave their passes at home and surrender themselves for arrest at police stations.” Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, the PAC leader, formally announced on Friday 18 March that the campaign would begin the following Monday on 21 March 1960, when people would assemble at various points and surrender their passes so as to deliberately court arrest. In Sharpeville, PAC activists immediately set about mobilising support. ANC leaders in the township spoke out against the PAC campaign, fearing it would get out of hand. There was also reluctance from some workers to join in because of fear of losing their jobs. There was a tense atmosphere in Sharpeville throughout the Saturday and the Sunday night.

On 21 March 1960, White South African police in the township of Sharpeville opened fire on a large crowd of Blacks protesting against pass laws, reportedly killing 69 people, perhaps a hundred or more and wounding many others. This massacre saw the beginning of the end of Apartheid and the start of the largest and most comprehensive opposition to Apartheid nationally and internationally. While the campaign for the 21 did not succeed in Orlando, Soweto, where Sobukwe and Leballo were stationed, in Sharpeville and other townships around the industrial area of Vereeniging and Cape Town the PAC won the mass support necessary to launch significant campaigns. Until March 21 1960, few of South Africa’s minority population knew more than the name of the Pan-Africanist Congress while many Blacks, Coloureds, and Indians openly pronounced their scepticism of this new movement. After launching their first campaign against passes, they were no longer regarded as just a small group of trouble makers within the confines of politics in South Africa. The PAC’s campaign echoed the call by the 1958 All African People’s Conference in Accra, Ghana for African continental freedom by 1963. Even though the Sharpeville PAC branch was not alone in the protest against pass books, what made the protest in Sharpeville unique was the mass participation and the state polices’ violent reaction.


The aftermaths

Following the 21 March massacres, mass funerals were held for the victims. The Regional Secretary General of the PAC, Philip Kgosana, led a march of 101 people from Langa to the police headquarters in Caledon Square, Cape Town in protest of the massacre. The protesters offered themselves for arrest for not carrying their passes. By the 25th of March, the Minister of Justice suspended passes throughout the country and Chief Albert Luthuli and Professor Z.K. Matthews called on all South Africans to mark a national day of mourning for the victims on the 28 March. Phillip Kgosana led another march of between 2000 and 5000 people from Langa to Caledon Square. Clarence Makwetu, at the time, the secretary of the PAC’s New Flats branch also led the march. Subsequently the march leaders were detained, but released on the same day with threats from the commanding officer of Caledon Square, Terry Terreblanche told the released protesters that “once the tense political situation improved people would be forced to carry passes again in Cape Town”. The events in Cape Town spread to neighbouring towns such as Paarl, Stellenbosch, Somerset West and Hermanus as anti-pass demonstrations continued. The call for a “stay away” on 28 March was highly successful and was the first ever national strike in the country’s history. Particularly, the Black workforce in the Cape went on strike for a period of two weeks and mass marches were staged in Durban. About 95% of the Black population and a substantial number of the Coloured community also joined the stay away. In Cape Town, policemen were forcing Africans back to work with batons and sjamboks, and four people were shot and killed in Durban. H.F. Verwoerd, Prime Minister at the time, praised the police for their actions. Robert Sobukwe and other leaders were arrested and detained after the Sharpeville massacre, some nearly three years after the incident. Sobukwe was only released in 1969.

The massacre backfired in that it discredited Apartheid and led to an expansion of opposition. This massacre reverberated around the world, triggering an enormous upsurge in global antiapartheid. After the Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960, the ANC and PAC were banned on 8 April. A large number of youth left the country to join the armed struggle and a certain political interval emerged.

The United Nations declared the day as International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in 1966. This was to commemorate the lives lost during the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre wherein the racist separatist South African Police Force opened fire on peaceful protesters. In 1979, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a programme of activities to be undertaken during the second half of the Decade for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination. On that occasion, the General Assembly decided that a week of solidarity with the peoples struggling against racism and racial discrimination, beginning on 21 March, would be organized annually in all states. In 1995 this day was declared Human Rights Day in South Africa. 21 March is being commemorated to reflect on the contemporary efforts to challenge racism and colonialism while forging for nation building and social cohesion.



  • Beenash, J. 2012. York University, Privilege vs. Complicity: People of Colour and Settler Colonialism. Equity Matters.
  • Cooper, S. 1994. Political Violence in South Africa: The Role of Youth. A Journal of Opinion. Cambridge University Press. 27-29.
  • Humphrey T, Bernardus, G. Fourie.1960 Sharpeville and After. U. N. Security Council Resolution. Africa Today. 7(3). Indiana University Press. 5-6.
  • Jessica P. Forsee, 2019. Genocide Masquerading: The Politics of the Sharpeville Massacre and Soweto Uprising, Georgia Southern University, Honours Programme Theses.
  • Maylman, P. 2010 “A tragic turning-point: remembering Sharpeville fifty years on” Rhodes University.

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