Why did people disagree about what happened at Sharpeville, South Africa on 21 March 1960?
One major source of disagreement exists in the narrative of what actually happened. Police reports indicated that the crowd became "hostile" and threatened police safety. Consider the words of Police Commander D H Pienaar: "It started when hordes of natives surrounding the police station...If they do these things, they must learn their lessons the hard way." The narrative that the South African police force and authorities advanced was they they were acting in self- defense against a hostile crowd of "natives."
Eyewitnesses and protesters dispute this, suggesting that their assembly on March 21, 1960 was a peaceful one and that police opened fire in the most brutal of manners. Their narrative features how they were protesting the use of pass laws and pass books as part of the governmental system of Apartheid. PAC Leader, Robert Subukwe, suggested that Black South Africans present themselves at police stations without their papers to be arrested, in a civil disobedient display of defiance towards Apartheid laws.
At some point, the peaceful display turned into a bloodbath. The police called for reinforcements as well as low flying aircraft to disperse the protesters and to turn them away. Some reports of protesters throwing stones surfaced, but the reality was that bullets and weapons were fatally employed against unarmed protesters. Not a single police officer faced reprimand for what happened at Sharpeville in 1960.
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.
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.
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, described the build up to the campaign:
On the morning of 21 March, PAC members walked around Sharpeville waking people up and urging them to take part in the demonstration. Other PAC members tried to stop bus drivers from going on duty and this resulted in a lack transport for Sharpeville residents who worked 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.
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, approximately 11h00, they were let through; the chanting of freedom songs continued and the slogans were repeated with even greater volume. Journalists who rushed there from other areas, after receiving word that the campaign was a runaway success confirmed "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.
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.
Eyewitness accounts and evidence later led to an official inquiry which 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 pointed to unnecessary provocation, especially as the crowd was unarmed and determined to stage a non-violent protest.