Sharpeville Massacre, 21 March 1960

Eyewitness accounts of the Sharpeville massacre 1960

The day of the Massacre, mourning the dead and getting over the shock of the event © Baileys African History Archive (BAHA)

Tom Petrus, author of 'My Life Struggle', Ravan Press...

"The aeroplanes were flying high and low. The people were throwing their hats to the aeroplanes. They thought the aeroplanes were playing with them. They didn't realise that death was near”¦Fortunately for me, they (the police) could not shoot on the side where I was standing. That was how I managed to get away.

People were running in all directions”¦some couldn't believe that people had been shot, they thought they had heard firecrackers. Only when they saw the blood and dead people, did they see that the police meant business."

Humphrey Tyler, assistant editor, Drum magazine...

"We went into Sharpeville the back way, behind a grey police car and three Saracens. As we drove through the fringes of the township many people shouted the Pan-Africanist slogan 'Izwe Lethu', which means 'Our Land', or gave the thumbs-up 'freedom' salute and shouted 'Afrika!'.

They were grinning, cheerful, and nobody seemed to be afraid”¦There were crowds in the streets as we approached the police station. There were plenty of police, too, wearing more guns and ammunition than uniforms”¦An African approached”¦and said he was the local Pan-Africanist leader. He told (us) his organisation was against violence and that the crowd was there for a peaceful demonstration”¦The crowd seemed perfectly amiable. It certainly never crossed our minds that they would attack us or anybody”¦

There were sudden shrill cries of 'Izwe Lethu' - women's voices it sounded - from near the police, and I could see a small section of the crowd swirl around the Saracens and hands went up in the Africanist salute. Then the shooting started. We heard the chatter of a machine gun, then another, then another. There were hundreds of women, some of them laughing. They must have thought the police were firing blanks. One woman was hit about ten yards from our car. Her companion, a young man, went back when she fell. He thought she had stumbled. Then he turned her over and saw that her chest had been shot away. He looked at the blood on his hand and said: 'My God, she's gone!' Hundreds of kids were running, too.

One little boy had on an old blanket coat, which he held up behind his head, thinking, perhaps, that it might save him from the bullets. Some of the children, hardly as tall as the grass, were leaping like rabbits. Some were shot, too. Still the shooting went on. One of the policemen was standing on top of a Saracen, and it looked as though he was firing his gun into the crowd. He was swinging it around in a wide arc from his hip as though he were panning a movie camera. Two other officers were with him, and it looked as if they were firing pistols. Most of the bodies were strewn on the road running through the field in which we were. One man, who had been lying still, dazedly got to his feet, staggered a few yards, then fell in a heap. A woman sat with her head cupped in her hands.

One by one the guns stopped.

Before the shooting, I heard no warning to the crowd to disperse. There was no warning volley. When the shooting started it did not stop until there was no living thing in the huge compound in front of the police station. The police have claimed they were in desperate danger because the crowd was stoning them. Yet only three policemen were reported to have been hit by stones - and more than 200 Africans were shot down. The police also have said that the crowd was armed with 'ferocious weapons', which littered the compound after they fled.

I saw no weapons, although I looked very carefully, and afterwards studied the photographs of the death scene. While I was there I saw only shoes, hats and a few bicycles left among the bodies. The crowd gave me no reason to feel scared, though I moved among them without any distinguishing mark to protect me, quite obvious with my white skin. I think the police were scared though, and I think the crowd knew it."

Ian Berry, photographer, Drum magazine...

"March 21st was my day off and I was at home when I heard on the news that someone had been shot outside Sharpeville. This was a day of protest against the pass laws organised by the Pan Africanist Congress with demonstrations taking place across the Reef, and I went into the Drum Office to see what their contacts had heard.

Nothing, it turned out; all the staff were out apart from sub-editor Humphrey Tyler; and no-one had phoned in with information. Humphrey and I borrowed Tom's car. When we got to Sharpeville, spotter planes were circling overhead and about fifteen cars were waiting on the outskirts of the township. The police drove past in armoured vehicles, which were not common at the time, and the press followed, but we were twice stopped and threatened that we would be arrested, as 'Europeans', for being in the township illegally.

Many among the string of cars were novices to South Africa drafted in to cover the developing tension, and all of them turned back. Humphrey and I conferred, thought we couldn't be far from the centre of the township and decided to follow the police at a discreet distance. We came to a large square compound in the centre, a police station surrounded by wire fences, with fields on two sides and roads on the other two. The armed vehicles went into the compound and we drove on to the waste ground beside, unobserved. Humphrey stayed in the car, I got out to see what was happening. Not much, it seemed; my guess was that there were two to three thousand there, but they were spread over a large area and with people no more than three or four deep at the fence, it didn't seem an enormous crowd. The demonstrators I talked to showed no hostility.

The cops were some distance away inside the compound, and there wasn't much to photograph. I was concerned about being spotted and arrested for very little photographic return so I walked back across the waste ground to Humphrey and the car. I leaned in. 'Maybe it's worth telephoning and finding out if anything else is going on.' Suddenly there was shouting from the crowd.

I turned and started to walk back towards the compound. The cops were now standing on top of their armoured cars waving sten guns, and when I was fifty yards away from the compound they opened fire into the crowd. I can't say for sure that nobody lobbed a stone at the police, but I do not believe a threatening situation had built up in the time it took me to walk the two sides of the compound and back. The cops were in no danger. I can only assume that they came out with the intention of showing the crowd, and in the process black South Africa, a dreadful lesson.

People started to run in all directions, some towards me, some away. The majority of the people who were killed were running away, around the side of the compound I had just come from. A woman was hit immediately beside me. A boy ran towards me with his coat pulled up over his head as if to protect himself from the bullets. I fell to the ground on my stomach and took pictures.

The shooting stopped, and then it started again. When it stopped for the second time, a man stood over the woman next to me and touched her. He lifted his hand and hesitated for a moment and looked at it, covered in blood. I thought I would be shot myself if I didn't get out and I ran back to Humphrey and the car. We took off.

We were quickly lost and although nervous about people wanting to take revenge on a couple of whites, we asked a man the way out. He readily told us and we left. Neither of us thought we had been witness to a definitive moment in South African history, although that is what it proved to be, and we didn't know how many people had been killed."

Last updated : 20-Mar-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Mar-2011

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