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new research on 1960 South African massacre shows the number of dead and injured was massively undercounted

On 21 March 1960 at 1.40 within the afternoon, apartheid South Africa’s police opened hearth on a calm crowd of about 4,000 citizens of Sharpeville, who have been protesting in opposition to wearing identity documents that limited black folks’s motion. The police minimised the collection of sufferers by way of a minimum of one 3rd, and justified the capturing by way of claiming that the gang was once violent. This surprising tale has been thus misrepresented for over 60 years.

Our new research retells the tale of Sharpeville, about 70km south of Johannesburg, from the standpoint of the sufferers themselves. As skilled historians who’ve undertaken archival analysis in South Africa since the 1970s we primarily based our research on interviews with survivors and investigation into executive information in each the police archives and the national archives in Pretoria. Our paintings finds the real collection of sufferers and the precise position of the police within the bloodbath.

The Sharpeville Massacre ignited world outrage and the start of the Anti-Apartheid Movement international. It additionally ended in renewed political protests within South Africa. Those have been met with the full suppression of political actions that lasted for 30 years. In spite of its ancient significance, Sharpeville as a spot and a group has remained unknown to the broader public and its citizens nameless. But they’ve a tale to inform.

Despite the fact that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission selected the 1960 Sharpeville bloodbath because the formal starting of its investigation of apartheid crimes, its exam of the bloodbath itself was once perfunctory. Handiest 3 witnesses from the group have been invited to testify all the way through simply a part of at some point (out of two,000 witnesses all the way through 5 years of hearings).

Folks in Sharpeville imagine that the loss of consideration to their plight since democracy in 1994 is since the unique protest was once organised by way of the rival Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania, now not the governing African Nationwide Congress (ANC).

Converting the narrative

In keeping with our analysis, the brand new guide Voices of Sharpeville lines the lengthy place of abode of Africans within the higher Sharpeville house, so far as the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site 100km north. It additionally emphasises the an important business significance of the higher Vaal Triangle by which Sharpeville is situated, from the Nineteen Thirties onward.

Our paintings main points the wealthy tradition evolved by way of city Sharpeville citizens in defiance of the makes an attempt of Prime Minister HF Verwoerd’s makes an attempt to keep an eye on African existence.

The usage of the phrases of witnesses as recorded from their sanatorium beds inside of days of the capturing, and for weeks and months later, the occasions of 21 March 1960 are recounted intimately, expanding the collection of sufferers to a minimum of 91 useless, and 281 injured. The respectable police figures first printed in 1960 and repeated eternally ever since have been 69 and 180 respectively.

The witness testimony puts the accountability for the capturing squarely with the police.

New proof

The oral and documentary supply subject matter we used was once prior to now off limits to researchers, insufficiently tested, or in large part overlooked. Get entry to to many information held by way of the former apartheid executive was once completely limited previous to 1994, and because then lots of the information have now not been correctly registered. This makes it difficult for researchers to search out essential paperwork.

However with the assistance of archivists and librarians, we have been ready to find uncommon or even hidden information of Sharpeville and its historical past, and report the voices of lots of the the town’s citizens.

Historical past of Sharpeville

The primary agreement within the Sharpeville house – Top Location – was once razed within the Nineteen Fifties to create space for white folks’s companies and houses. Legit information and aerial pictures divulge the former lifestyles of a giant group at the now empty land. There may be an unmarked cemetery the place about 3,500 citizens have been buried between round 1900 and 1938.

By means of the mid-Twentieth century, apartheid officers started to devise a larger agreement within the neighborhood. Sharpeville and different puts find it irresistible have been designed within the Nineteen Fifties to segregate Africans clear of the towns, which have been reserved for white folks simplest.

Sharpeville’s housing building changed into a “style” for the ever-present four-roomed NE 51/9 houses in black townships right through the rustic, none of which they might personal outright however hire simplest.

In nearly 300 witness statements taken by way of the police right away following the capturing, lots of the on a regular basis main points of existence in Sharpeville have been published. Those statements have been recorded right away after arrest and beneath oath by way of the police to decide guilt or innocence in opposition to the fees of “public violence and incitement” introduced in opposition to them. They have been additionally supplied voluntarily in 1961 and 1962, additionally beneath oath, by way of survivors and members of the family to ascertain a foundation for the reimbursement the sufferers unsuccessfully asked.

Main points of circle of relatives existence – numbers of kids, occupations, wages, and well being – have been recorded, offering a wealth of details about Sharpeville’s citizens.

The bloodbath: Testimony, each from the respectable 1960 commission of enquiry into the bloodbath, and the legal court docket trial of over 70 Sharpeville citizens in 1960-1961, detailed the movements of each the gang and the police.

The testimony by way of civilians and police alike, in conjunction with the claimants’ statements, supplies a minute-by-minute narrative of the day. The testimonies of the citizens, together with all of the Africans who labored for the municipality and as law enforcement officials in Sharpeville, unanimously attested to the truth that the gang collected peacefully to protest the pass law. In step with those witnesses, by the point of the capturing, nearly 300 policemen were moved into the township, together with a minimum of 13 white policemen armed with Sten system weapons. There have been 5 Saracen armoured automobiles.

Police testimony makes it transparent that the officer in fee gave the order to shoot, with the system gunners firing at once into the gang from a distance of not more than 3-5 metres. As one white respectable famous:

It made me recall to mind a wheat box, the place a whirlwind had shaken it.

The gang was once taken completely by way of marvel by way of the police fusillade. Over 3 quarters of them, useless and injured alike, have been shot within the again as they fled.

The sufferers: An important to gaining a correct working out of the numbers of sufferers – their names, households, and accidents – have been the post-mortem and clinical information detailing the precise reasons of loss of life and harm for the over 300 sufferers. Those paperwork and narrative statements, crammed out by way of the sanatorium physicians who handled the injured and carried out autopsies at the useless, turn out conclusively that the federal government under-counted the sufferers by way of a minimum of one 3rd.

This new knowledge remained embargoed in police information right through the apartheid years to 1994. A few of it was once in spite of everything transferred to the nationwide archives within the past due Nineties and early 2000s. It main points the wounds.


The folk of Sharpeville surprise why the arena has now not listened to their tales whilst they’ve advised them from the day of the capturing to the current.

In 2023, citizens have been ready to make use of the guidelines exposed in our analysis to replace the Wall of Names Memorial (which lists the title of each one that gave their existence preventing for freedom in South Africa) at Freedom Park in Pretoria to mirror as it should be the collection of sufferers killed on 21 March 1960. However nonetheless they’ve won no reimbursement for his or her accidents.



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