The Sharpeville massacre takes place

Sharpeville Massacre victims and police Image source

Monday, 21 March 1960

On 21 March, 1960, a breakaway organisation from the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) staged an anti-pass demonstration outside Sharpeville police station near Vereeniging. They voluntarily handed over their passes, demanding an end to the pass laws. However, the march ended in tragedy when the police opened fire on the marchers, killing 69 people and injuring close to 200 people, in what has come to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre. Some commentators argue that the events of Cato Manor, the year before, caused the policemen to open fire on the peaceful protesters. However, whatever reasons underpinned the decision to open fire, it was an unmitigated disaster, with the majority of the protesters shot in the back as they fled. According to reports, the ANC had planned a similar campaign against the pass laws for 31 March 1960. The PAC pre-empted this and announced the beginning of their campaign to start ten days earlier. Human Rights Day on 21 March has been a public holiday in South Africa ever since 1994, and it is observed to commemorate this important event in our history, as well as the importance of all other human rights. 

• South African History Online, 'Sharpeville Massacre, 21 March 1960',  [online], Available at: [Accessed: 18 March 2014]
Body-Evans A. (2014),” Sharpeville Massacre: The Origin of South Africa's Human Rights Day”, From:, [online] ,Available at: ,[Accessed: 17 March 2014] 

Last updated : 17-Mar-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 14-Mar-2014