Sharpeville Massacre, 21 March 1960

Pass Laws and Sharpeville Massacre

Pass laws in South Africa were met with fierce resistance during the 20th century. But earlier forms of passes, had in fact been used in various instances since the 18th century, when slaves in the Cape were forced to carry "permission" documents.

The issuing of passes was one of the cornerstones of the colonial and later racial capitalism in South Africa. Passes were used to control the movement of African, Coloured and Indian people, ensuring the provision of a cheap labour source and enforcing the segregation of South African's along racial lines.

Pass laws have been resisted in several significant instances. Examples of these include the first passive resistance campaign initiated by the Indian community in the Transvaal, led by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, in 1906. This campaign was over, amongst other things, the carrying of passes. In 1913 the first mass action by African and Coloured women was initiated in the Free State. In 1918 the workers' strike around the issue of passes took place, and pass-burning campaigns were organised in the 1930s by the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) and various trade unions.

The pass and the resistance against the carrying of the pass became an issue around which the liberation movements mounted their campaigns.

More proactive opposition to discrimination became necessary after the National Party (NP) came to power in 1948, and racial segregation and discrimination was intensified through the implementation of the policy of 'apartheid' or separate development.

Resistance to the pass laws intensified during the 1950s, and various protests took place. These included protests by the African National Congress Women's League (ANCWL) in 1950, and the women's march to the Union Buildings in August 1956, which is now commemorated each year as Women's Day.

Read about the history of pass laws

Planning the 1960 anti-pass campaigns: ANC and PAC

At the annual conference of the African National Congress (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 1960 the anniversary of the 1919 anti-pass campaign.

In addition to the grievance about passes, the ANC promoted what became known as the one pound a day campaign. This campaign had its origins in the call made by the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) in 1957, and followed up as an ongoing campaign in 1959 dubbed the anti-poverty campaign. SACTU had become a member of the Congress Alliance in 1957.

A week after the ANC's 1959 annual conference, a breakaway group from the ANC, formed the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) at a conference held in Johannesburg. At this conference, it was announced that the PAC would launch its own anti-pass campaign. The reasons cited by many sources for this split are that the PAC advocated for approaches that were contrary to the non-racial orientation of the ANC and that members were frustrated by its moderation, expressed in the Freedom Charter in 1955.

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. This marked the beginning of the rivalry over responsibility for organizing the march.

The anti-pass campaign was organised at both local and national level, and there were areas where the ingredients for mass action were in place. For example, Durban's Cato Manor, Cape Town's Langa and, until five years earlier, Johannesburg's Sophiatown were potentially hotbeds of dissent. Yet it was Sharpeville and the events of the 21st March that came to represent the struggle of Black people against the unjust system of apartheid.

Why Sharpeville?

The Sharpeville massacre itself is well documented. However, little of the literature focuses on background explanations as to how developments within Sharpeville led to the confrontation between police and anti-pass demonstrators on that fateful day. The critical question, often ignored in the literature on the event is, "Why was it in Sharpeville as opposed to anywhere else in the Union that the PAC's campaign received its strongest response, a question that can only be answered by examining the local history that led up to the shootings" (Chaskalson, 1986).

This subtopic will examine the role of the Vereeniging Town Council as well as the role of local industries in the decade and half immediately after World War II as a factor in the explanation of the Sharpeville Protest.

Role of local industries

ISCOR and SASOL, the state’s metal and fuel companies, were and continue to be the two key role players in the provision of employment in the Sharpeville region. These two industries experienced rapid growth in the immediate aftermath of World War II and continued growing into the 1950s and 1960s.

In response to this growth and increased employment opportunities, thousands of African families from the immediate rural hinterland, dominated by White commercial agriculture, inevitably found their way into Vereeniging, Transvaal (now Gauteng). These families settled in the only accommodation in the area offered to Africans, namely; Top Location, and later, Sharpeville.

This movement had a significant bearing on the NP government's designs for all urban areas across South Africa. These designs are reflected in the government's most elaborate piece of legislation intended to regulate the numbers of Africans entering urban areas, the Native Laws Amendment Act of 1952 (see info block).

Pass laws required that Africans had to carry identity documents with them at all times. These books had to contain stamps providing official proof that that the person in question had permission to be in a town at that time. According to Section 10 (1a-d) of the 1954 Native Urban Areas Act Africans could only stay in an urban area for more than 12 hours if they:
a) Had been born there and had lived there ever since.
b) Had worked there for ten years under one employer, or had lived there for 15 years without breaking any law (including pas laws)
c) Were the child or wife of a man permitted to live in the urban area on the conditions of (a) or (b) mentioned above.
d) Signed a contract to migrate from a rural reserve to a specific job for a limited period of time in an urban area after which they must return home. Contract workers' families were not allowed to join them in an urban area.

The role of the Vereeniging Town Council

The Native Laws Amendment Act of 1952 was used as a mechanism to distribute African labour in such a way that White commercial agriculture was guaranteed adequate supplies of labour despite increasing levels of impoverishment in the countryside.

Sections 10 (1) (a), (b), (c), and (d) were enforced in such a way that only Africans in long term, regular and somewhat permanent employment were allowed to reside in urban areas.

In his examination of circumstances leading to the massacre that takes into account local developments during the 1950s, Chaskalson argues that "throughout the 1950s Sharpeville was recognised across the country as the model African township, and the Council was able to censor almost all local African political activity" (Chaskalson, 1986).

Therefore, the social and economic development of Vereeniging towards the end of the 1950s, particularly the administration of its African Township, is significant in the Vereeniging Town Council's role in the events of 21 March 1960.

In the early 1950s, Vereeniging's only Black Township, Top Location, was modelled along the same lines as Sophiatown and was also notoriously difficult to police. The Vereeniging Town Council decided to apply the 'Sophiatown solution' to Top Location. By the end of 1959 all residents of Top Location had been relocated to Sharpeville where they were subjected to stricter controls. Even more important than strict policing, Sharpeville, like all other townships created by the NP government, was made to pay for the cost of its upkeep. This was done through charging rentals considered exorbitant when taking into account the families' incomes. Finally, the ejection of the unemployed considered in excess of the requirements of the town's labour needs had the potential to create dissent against the town council.

The lives of residents of African townships elsewhere in the Union were regulated through the application of the provisions of Section 10 (1) of the Native Laws Amendment Act of 1952, Sharpeville was no different. Transgressors of location regulations, i.e. those found to be in Vereeniging illegally because they were not in formal employment, risked being forced back to the rural areas. In the context of the 1950s, when the homeland system was only evolving, this could have entailed repatriation of these Africans to areas closer to White commercial farms where they could be easily available as seasonal labour when they were needed. These were the circumstances that many residents of Sharpeville were faced with when the march against passes was proposed in 1959.

A climate of protest

Sharpeville residents had to play hide and seek with the authorities, many unsuccessfully, getting arrested and forced to return to farms where their labour was only required during the harvesting season. In this climate residents of Sharpeville did not hesitate to respond energetically when the march against passes was proposed in 1959.

However, besides the pass laws, the Sharpeville demonstrations were meant to highlight other grievances. These included low wages and high rents in the townships. Low wages were the norm, reinforced by the fact that Black trade unions were not legally recognised and could not negotiate with employers. The 'colour bar', or job reservation for Whites, also meant that Blacks were excluded from better paying jobs, and largely restricted to low-wage occupations.

Last updated : 20-Mar-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 13-Jun-2011