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A Mass Shooting in South Africa

After finishing Lethal Copycats and in light of recent events, it brought back memories of what happens when politics bumps up against brute force, as happened in Sharpeville, South Africa many years ago. This post summarizes that tragic day on 21 March 1960.

Hands up. Don’t shoot. We demand our civil rights. These refrains echo across borders for different reasons. South Africa in the 1960s was no exception.

The Shooting

According to Tom Lodge, author of Sharpeville: An Apartheid Massacre and its Consequences (Making of the Modern World), a seventeen-year-old boy had these recollections about that fateful day:

“There was blood everywhere. People were running, but they didn’t know where to go because there were three helicopters circling above them. My legs could not move. People were falling, crying. Some tried to run, but they were shot in the back and fell. They were helpless.”

What preceded this tragic confrontation?

Historically, slaves had been forced to carry passes so that their owners could control their movements within the country. Large numbers of blacks were also controlled this way during the apartheid years – a practice that became a rallying cry for the desperate masses and one of the main reasons for a crowd gathering outside the Sharpeville police station on 21 March 1960.

When the shooting stopped, at least 69 people were dead, including 10 children, and 180 people were injured, including 31 women and 19 children.

In the aftermath, police photographed “sticks, clubs, bottles, iron pipes, assegais, pangas, needle swords, and other weapons,” according to the author, Tom Lodge’s description of events. These items were confiscated from an “armed and violent crowd.”

Perceptions and Consequences

Both sides had different recollections of the mass shooting. For the young Afrikaner policemen – reeling in the wake of an assassination attempt on one of the architects of apartheid, Dr. Verwoerd – this was first and foremost a security issue. It was also by no means the bloodiest police action on South African soil. That ignominious title belonged to the Bulhoek massacre, where 83 members of an Israelite sect died at the hands of the police.

Aggressive police tactics in the community and ignorance about social issues – compounded by a leadership vacillating about what to do about the “native issue” – contributed to the outcome on that day. According to Lodge, the police were unlikely to have heard the hymn-singing and old folks at the edge of the assembly. What they were likely to have heard inside the station , in an era pre-dating surveillance technology in South Africa – would have been “political slogans, shrill ululations, and what they thought were taunts…”

But history teaches a valuable lesson. The shooting helped to galvanize the international anti-apartheid movement and set in motion events that would ultimately lead to black majority rule in 1994.

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