On This Day: South African police kill 69 black anti-apartheid protesters in Sharpeville massacre

On This Day: South African police kill 69 black anti-apartheid protesters in Sharpeville massacre

MARCH 21, 1960: South African police shot dead 69 black anti-apartheid protesters in the Sharpeville massacre on this day in 1960.

Officers opened fire on a 19,000-strong crowd who had arrived at a police station to offer themselves up for arrest for not carrying their hated passbooks.

Many of the victims, who included eight women and ten children, were shot in the back as they turned to flee.

A further 180 people were also injured in the attack in the Sharpeville township after the heavily-armed police claimed they were provoked by stone-throwing.

The demonstrators were protesting against the recently expanded Pass Laws that forced blacks to carry ID everywhere and restricted their movement.

The decision to fire was made after two low-flying fighter jets were unable to disperse the crowds and attempts to arrest the ringleaders had failed.

The station’s 20 policemen, supported by 140 reinforcement officers with four British-made Saracen armour personnel carriers, fired indiscriminately.

The massacre prompted the country’s white-minority government to ban public meetings and outlaw the African Nation Congress and rival Pan-Africanist Congress.

It also triggered an armed campaign led by the ANC’s Nelson Mandela, who became a figurehead for the anti-apartheid movement after being jailed for life in 1964.

Sharpeville also put the global spotlight on South Africa’s unjust system of government for the first time.

It was internationally condemned by dozens of nations, including by Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in his 'Winds of Change' speech.

The following year, after white South Africans voted to become a republic, it was refused readmission to the Commonwealth.

A British Pathé newsreel shows the meeting at the organisation’s Lancaster House headquarters where the decision was made.

Mr Macmillan tried to persuade the other member states’ representatives to keep South Africa in.

But other African countries, as well as many in Asia and Canada were determined to expel the racist country.

It sparked popular campaigns to further isolate South Africa and force it to ditch apartheid by hitting the wealthy nation in the pocket and hurting its pride.

Protesters, who initially failed to gain economic and political sanctions, had more success ostracising the nation from sporting competitions.

They hoped this isolation would particularly hit home with the country’s sports-mad Afrikaner white majority, in whose language apartheid means 'separateness'.


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In 1963 FIFA suspended South Africa from international football because they refused to field a mixed-race team.

The following year they were then barred from the 1964 Olympics before finally being banned from all future Games until they ended their white-only policy.

International cricket was banned after Basil D’Oliveira, a mix-raced or 'coloured' South African who went on to play for England, helped cancel the 1968 tour.


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But rugby, which was seen as a religion to Afrikaners and South Africa were the best in the world at, was a harder nut to crack, despite increasingly violent protests.

New Zealand was the last country to host the Springboks in a 1981 – but rugby sides continued to visit South Africa – including England, which last played in the apartheid state in 1984.

Protesters from around the world were eventually able to economically isolate South Africa too by persuading major corporations to 'disinvest' in the racist state.

Meanwhile, by the 1980s, violence in South Africa escalated as mounting unrest led to brutal crackdowns and a decade-long state of emergency.

In a bid to stop the bloodshed, President FW De Klerk released Mr Mandela from jail in 1990 after 27 years of imprisonment and began negotiations to end apartheid.

Four years later, Mr Mandela was voted president in the country’s first free and multi-racial elections.

In 1996, on the 25th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre, he chose the site as the place to sign the new democratic constitution.

The day is now commemorated as South Africa's Human Rights Day.