Tuesday, March 23, 2010

50 years since the Sharpeville Massacre

One of the most infamous events in South African history occurred on on 21 March 1960, when a group of between 5,000 and 7,000 black people converged on the local police station in the township of Sharpeville, near Johannesburg, offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying their pass books which determined where they could live and work. Many of the crowd attended to support the protest, but there is evidence that the Pan Afrianist Congress also used intimidating means to draw the crowd to the protest, including the cutting of telephone lines into Sharpeville, the distribution of pamphlets telling people not to go to work on the day, and coercion of bus drivers and commuters.

By 10:00 am, a large crowd had gathered, and the atmosphere was initially peaceful and festive. Fewer than 20 police officers were present in the station at the start of the protest. Later the crowd grew to about 20,000, and the mood turned ugly. About 130 police reinforcements, supported by four Saracen armored cars, were rushed in. The police were armed with firearms, including Sten sub-machine guns. There was no evidence that anyone in the crowd was armed with anything other than rocks.

Sabre jets and Harvard Trainers zoomed within 30 metres of the ground, buzzing the crowd in an attempt to scatter it. The crowd responded by hurling stones, striking three policemen, and at about 1:00 pm the police tried to arrest a protestor. There was a scuffle, and the crowd advanced toward the fence. The shooting began shortly thereafter. The official figure is that 69 people were killed, including 8 women and 10 children, and over 180 injured, including 31 women and 19 children. Many were shot in the back as they turned to flee.

Needless to say, this turned world sentiment swiftly against the whites-only South African Government and its policies of Apartheid, although it was to be more than 30 years before it ended. Protests against NZ's rugby ties with white South Africa were a major feature of 1970s and 1980s politics in NZ, with Robert Muldoon's support for them being a key factor in his 1975 and 1981 election victories. They were also a key factor in the boycott by some African countries of the 1976 Olympics. However, the next National Party PM, Jim Bolger, took a quite different stance to Muldoon on the issue of politics and sport.

21 March is now the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

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