Sharpeville Massacre: The Tragic Event that Fueled the Fight Against Apartheid in South Africa

The Sharpeville massacre was a turning point in the history of South Africa, marking a major shift in the struggle against apartheid. On March 21, 1960, thousands of black South Africans gathered outside the Sharpeville police station to protest against the apartheid pass laws, which required them to carry identity documents at all times. The demonstration quickly turned violent, and police opened fire on the unarmed crowd, killing sixty-nine people and injuring hundreds more.

The Sharpeville Massacre: A Tragic Event that Fueled the Fight Against Apartheid in South Africa
Painting depicting victims of the massacre by Godfrey Rubens

The Sharpeville Massacre was a tragic event that took place on March 21, 1960, in Sharpeville, a township located about 50 south of Johannesburg, South Africa. It was a turning point in South Africa’s history, leading to widespread international condemnation of the apartheid system and setting the stage for the eventual downfall of the apartheid government.

South Africa was under the apartheid regime at the time, a system of racial segregation and discrimination that was enforced by law. The government had passed a series of laws that restricted the movement and activities of black South Africans, including the Pass Laws, which required black South Africans to carry identification documents and travel permits at all times. Failure to produce the documents upon demand by authorities could result in arrest and imprisonment.

The Sharpeville Massacre

In 1960, Robert Sobukwe’s Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), a political organization that opposed the apartheid regime, called for a national day of protest against the Pass Laws. These protests were to begin on 21 March, 1960.

The Sharpeville Massacre: A Tragic Event that Fueled the Fight Against Apartheid in South Africa

On the morning of March 21, 1960, thousands of black South Africans gathered peacefully outside the Sharpeville police station, chanting slogans and demanding an end to the pass laws. The police responded by surrounding the protesters and demanding that they disperse. The situation quickly escalated, with protesters throwing stones at the police and the police firing tear gas.

Eventually, shots were fired by the police, resulting in the deaths of 69 people, including 8 women and 10 children, most of whom were shot in the back while fleeing. More than 180 others were injured in the massacre and the streets of Sharpeville were littered with the bodies of the dead and injured. The incident shocked the world and sparked widespread condemnation of the apartheid government.

The uproar among South Africa’s black population was immediate, and the following week saw demonstrations, protest marches, strikes, and riots around the country.

In response to the growing anti-apartheid movement, the South African government declared a state of emergency, banning the ANC, PAC and other anti-apartheid organizations, including the PAC and detaining more than 18,000 people, including prominent anti-apartheid activists including Nelson Mandela. This move only fueled the anti-apartheid movement and made the struggle against apartheid more determined.

The Sharpeville Massacre marked a turning point in South Africa’s history, and the international community responded with outrage and condemnation. The United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 134, which condemned the South African government’s actions and called for an end to apartheid. The resolution garnered nine votes in favor, while France and the United Kingdom opted to abstain.

The incident also led to the formation of the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid, which put pressure on the South African government to end apartheid.

Domestically, the Sharpeville Massacre had a profound impact on the anti-apartheid movement. The ANC and other organizations responded with increased militancy, leading to the formation of the Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the military wing of the ANC. The event also led to increased international pressure on the South African government to end apartheid, and eventually, the apartheid regime fell in 1994, with the election of Nelson Mandela as the country’s first black president.

The Sharpeville Massacre
The row of graves of the 69 people killed by police at the Sharpeville Police Station on 21 March 1960.

To honor the victims of the Sharpeville massacre, Nelson Mandela signed the South African Constitution in Sharpeville on December 10, 1996, and opened “The Sharpeville Memorial,” which comprises 69 concrete pillars representing each of the individuals killed during the peaceful anti-pass demonstration. Human Rights Day is now commemorated on March 21.

Talk Africana
Talk Africana
Fascinating Cultures and history of peoples of African origin in both Africa and the African diaspora


  1. The Sharpeville Massacre is a painful event that shaped the Liberation Struggle for Southern Afrika and led to a long walk to freedom. Worse is that we cry for those whose blood waters our freedom, while celebrating the gaining of independence. Namibia gained Independence from minority white South African apartheid regime on this day 21 March 1990.


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