|Some 69 black South Africans were killed when police opened fire on demonstrators protesting the Apartheid pass system on March 20, 1960 [GALLO/GETTY]
There is something quite unnerving about looking at old archive footage, particularly when you know what is coming. The grainy black-and-white footage from Sharpeville, South Africa seems at first innocuous.
Bored-looking policemen appear to casually chit-chat, just as the footage begins to resemble a badly-shot 1940s neo-realist Italian film. Suddenly, the true horror unfolds.
A man, with a limp lifeless body nestled in his forearms, tilts it slightly toward the camera. And then … more bodies … more policemen.
On March 21, 1960, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) launched a campaign for black South Africans to protest against the pass system. Bearers, who had to carry the pass every where they went or face arbitrary imprisonment casually referred to it as the “Dompass” – which roughly translates as “the stupid pass”.
It was more than stupid, it was draconian, dehumanising and epitomised the essence of Apartheid.
The pass laws regulated and limited travel and employment for black South Africans in their own country.
There had also been a rallying call to campaign against low wages, high rents and poor living conditions in the townships.
The PAC was a breakaway group from the African National Congress (ANC). It was actually the ANC that had called for the protests against the pass laws, to be held later that month.
The PAC, who were South Africa’s Malcolm X to the ANC’s Martin Luther King Jr, had decided to pre-empt it and converge on a local police station anyway.
They were considered hardliners; “Africa for Africans” they said. Their slogans were for freedom, driven by black nationalism. The ANC’s manifesto, “The Freedom Charter”, was too soft for the PAC, and spoke too much of a multi-racial utopia that they hoped South Africa would one day become.
Spurred by the injustices of Apartheid, which had been state policy since 1948, and the decades of oppression that predated it before it became enshrined in policy, around 20,000 protesters arrived in the township of Sharpeville, just south of Johannesburg.
The police, claiming to have come under attack by the mob, opened fire and killed 69 people. Over 200 were injured. Hendrik Verwoerd, the then prime minister, also dubbed the architect of Apartheid, had claimed that the protesters had “shot first”. No arms were found on any of the protesters, or victims, however.
The repercussions of the police brutality were colossal: A state of emergency was declared triggering thousands of arrests.
The United Nations Security Council, previously so often opaque in regards to the plight of South Africa’s non-white majority, issued its first resolution against Pretoria.
Foreign investors quickly pulled out of the country.
Verwoerd then proceeded to ban the ANC and PAC.
Writing in 1987, author Millard W. Arnold suggested that the ban and heavy-handed crackdown had “welded together three generations of black people united in their opposition to Apartheid.”
The actions of the Apartheid Government politicised a “younger, more militant generation determined to battle the government from the townships rather than taking up the struggle abroad.”
|Anti-Apartheid activist re-enacts the massacre at a London memorial in 1970 [GETTY]|
There was also a rethink of the ANC’s non-violent approach. Despite being an underground outfit, “Umkhonto we Sizwe” or “The Spear of the Nation”, was formed in the aftermath of Sharpeville and became the military wing of the ANC.
The struggle had now become the armed struggle.
Acts of sabotage against government targets, which sometimes took civilian lives, were enough for the US State Department and Margaret Thatcher, the then British prime minister, to label the ANC a “terrorist organisation”.
Whether resistance or terrorism, the taking up of arms by the biggest opposition movement in the country most certainly found its roots in Sharpeville and redrew the battle lines.
The PAC, committed to Pan-Africanism, often served as an ideological fountain where later proponents of the Black Consciousness movement, like Steve Biko, would find inspiration.
Black Consciousness filled the vacuum left by the banning of the two parties, and served as a platform for uprising from within the townships themselves, particularly among the youth.
A shocked world
And it was the youth who were spurred to action in Soweto in June 1976. They protested and rioted against the imposition of Afrikaans as their mode of instruction at school. Afrikaans was the mother tongue of the white-Afrikaner minority but sometimes the third or fourth language of the students.
Dozens of youth were subsequently gunned down by police, many shot in the back.
The iconic image of teenager Hector Pieterson, (this time a black and white still, not video, but still as menacing) in the throes of death after being shot generated another blast of furious condemnation from a shocked world.
Soweto was like a chilling sequel to Sharpeville. Sharpeville 1960 laid the foundations for the world to see the true nature of the Apartheid regime. Soweto 1976 embarrassed the world for not doing enough, as the situation in South Africa had now become completely unpalatable.
The Pretoria government would last another 18 years, amid international condemnation, boycotts, divestments and sanctions; in 1994, the formerly jailed ANC leader Nelson Mandela was elected president in South Africa’s first democratic elections.
Today, the ruling-ANC is a leviathan of the political arena. It won just under 70 per cent of the vote in the 2009 election. Meanwhile, the PAC will be forgiven for feeling forgotten, marginalised and deemed a movement best-suited for a bygone era.
Claiming a paltry 0.27 per cent of the vote in 2009, it can hardly be considered a major political player any more. But its role in those dark and confusing days of grainy footage and sadistic policemen brutalising an entire populous can never be forgotten.
Today, the township of Sharpeville is about to get an $8mn face-lift from state funds. Much of it is to make it feel welcoming for the start of the Fifa World Cup. Locals will get to see footballers from Ivory Coast and Switzerland training at facilities in the township and its surrounding areas.
But while the dream of seeing Didier Drogba may come true for some locals – the ghosts of the 1960 nightmare are a far more pressing concern.
They seemed to reappear earlier this year when Sharpeville residents torched cars and clashed with police – citing poor living conditions and the government’s inability to provide basic services.
The guns were heard again in Sharpeville. There is no Apartheid but there is anger; there are no “Dompasses” anymore, but there is desperation.
A half century on from the event that was so instrumental in shaping its history, tough questions remain for the rainbow nation.
Can Jacob Zuma, the president, and the ANC-led government give the majority of South Africans, unshackled from the racism and brutality of the past, the economic prosperity they desire to match the political freedom they now enjoy?
The video footage of the recent “service delivery” protests in Sharpeville, in Sakhile, in KwaDukuza and in other townships may have less dead bodies. The footage may be clearer, may be in colour and not the old grainy black and white – but it is equally unnerving.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.