On 19 March 1960, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) called on Black South Africans to leave their pass books at home and thereafter gather peacefully at police stations nearest their homes, and demand that the police arrest them for not carrying passes. The PAC saw this as the first step in Black peoples’ bid for total independence and freedom, which the organisation believed would be achieved by 1963. The PAC argued that if thousands of people were arrested, the country’s jails would be filled and the economy would come to a standstill. Heeding this call, by mid-day 21 March, nearly 5,000 residents gathered at the police station in Sharpeville, a township just outside Johannesburg. Approximately 300 heavily armed police, some armed with automatic rifles, confronted the gathering. A small scuffle began near the entrance of the police station. A police officer was accidently pushed over and the crowd surged to see what was happening. According to the police, protesters began to stone them. A police officer, on top of an armoured car, panicked and without any warning to disperse, opened fire on the unarmed crowd. His colleagues followed suit. The firing lasted for approximately two minutes. According to the official inquest, 69 people were shot dead and 180 people seriously wounded.
The shooting at Sharpeville sent shock waves around the country and the world. The African National Congress (ANC) President, Chief Albert Luthuli, called on people to burn their passes and declared a day of mourning. He also called for a national one day “stay at home”. The Government retaliated by passing the Unlawful Organisations Act, on 7 April 1960, banning the ANC and the PAC. By 6 May 1960, 18,000 people were detained under a State of Emergency (SOE), in 83 magisterial districts – the first state of emergency declared by the Apartheid State. As part of a national crackdown on political activity, the State also banned leading political figures. The ANC, PAC, South African Communist Party (SACP) and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) sent some of their most senior members abroad to mobilise international support against the Apartheid regime. This group of leaders, Oliver Tambo, Yusuf Dadoo, Moses Mabhida and others who fled the government crackdown, established the infrastructure and support bases for military training of combatants who were expected to go back home. However, many spent years in exile.