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PETER FROST looks back 55 years to one of the most heinous crimes committed by the Apartheid government in South Africa

In March 21 1960 South African police opened fire on a few hundred peaceful demonstrators who were protesting against the cruel and racist pass laws.

When the smoke and dust had settled, 69 people lay dead and another 300 were injured. Thirty-one of the dead were women and 19 children. Many were shot in the back as they turned to flee.

That day the name of the small township of Sharpeville, near Vereeniging in the Transvaal, echoed round the globe and changed the future of the entire African continent forever.

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The Sharpeville massacre signalled the start of armed resistance in South Africa and prompted worldwide condemnation of South Africa’s apartheid policies.

After the second world war, in 1948, the hugely racist Herstigte Nasionale Party came into power.

Within a year the Mixed Marriages Act — it should have been called the banning of Mixed Marriages Act — was passed.

It would be the first of many segregationist and racist laws devised to separate privileged white South Africans from the black African majority.

By 1958, with the election of Hendrik Verwoerd, South Africa was completely committed to the obscene philosophy of apartheid.

The African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) were the main opposition to the government’s policies.

The Communist Party was banned in 1950 and could only work underground.

In 1956 the ANC had committed itself to a South Africa which “belongs to all.” Its peaceful demonstrations were met with police and army brutality. Both were well equipped by British arms manufacturers.

In June 1956 the ANC and other anti-apartheid groups approved the Freedom Charter. The apartheid state’s response was the arrest of 156 anti-apartheid leaders and a treason trial which would last until 1961.

At the beginning of April 1960 the ANC launched a campaign of demonstration against the hated pass laws, cruel and unjust regulations designed to control the movement of Africans.

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The laws were the direct descendents of regulations imposed by the Dutch and British in the 18th and 19th-century slave economy of the Cape Colony.

Later pass laws were put in place to ensure a reliable supply of cheap, docile African workers for the hugely profitable gold and diamond mines.

In 1952 the apartheid government passed an even more rigid law that required all African males over the age of 16 to carry a reference book, just another name for the long-hated passbook.

This pass, which had to be carried at all times, contained personal information and employment history.

Africans often were compelled to violate the pass laws to find work to support their families, so harassment, fines and arrests under the pass laws were a constant threat.

By the time the laws were repealed in 1986, more than 17 million Africans had been arrested.

Protest against these humiliating laws fuelled the anti-apartheid struggle — key actions included the Defiance Campaign of 1952-54 and the massive women’s protest in Pretoria in 1956.

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Africans found in violation of pass laws were stripped of citizenship and deported to poverty-stricken rural so-called homelands (Bantustans).

Between 1960 and 1985, approximately three and a half million Africans were forcibly removed to these rural dumping grounds.

White employers used the homelands as reservoirs of cheap black labour. The apartheid regime hoped these invented independent territories would ensure the denial of South African citizenship to millions of Africans.

Then on March 21 1960, a group of people converged on the local police station in the little-known township of Sharpeville. They offered themselves up for arrest for not carrying their passbooks.

By the end of the day the whole world would know the name Sharpeville.

As the crowd grew, about 140 police reinforcements were rushed to the scene. They bought with them four Coventry-built Saracen armoured personnel carriers.

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All the police were armed, including submachine guns as well as Lee-Enfield rifles. The protesters had no arms except a few stones.

F-86 Sabre jets and Harvard Trainers were hurriedly scrambled and flew just a hundred feet over the crowd in an attempt to scatter it.

Police fired tear gas canisters with little effect. Then they advanced with riot sticks.

Finally, as the crowd thronged forward to protect one of their leaders from arrest, the police opened fire.

Police claimed that young and inexperienced police officers panicked and started to shoot. None had received any public order training.

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The police attitude is best demonstrated by Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar, the commanding officer of the police reinforcements at Sharpeville.

He stated that “the native mentality does not allow them to gather for a peaceful demonstration. For them, to gather means violence.”

The angry reaction among South Africa’s black population was immediate and the week after the massacre saw demonstrations, protest marches, strikes and riots around the country.

On March 30 1960, the government declared a state of emergency, detaining more than 18,000 people, including prominent anti-apartheid activists.

A storm of international protest followed the Sharpeville massacre. There were huge and angry demonstrations in many countries.

On April 1 1960, the United Nations security council passed Resolution 134. The resolution recognised that the situation was brought about by the policies of the government of the Union of South Africa and that if these policies continued they could endanger international peace and security.

The resolution voiced the council’s anger at the policies and actions of the government, offered its sympathies to the families of the victims, called upon the government to initiate measures aimed at bringing about racial harmony based on equality and called upon it to abandon apartheid.

To its shame Britain abstained. Nonetheless Sharpeville marked a turning point in South Africa’s history — the country found itself increasingly isolated.

In South Africa the Sharpeville massacre led to the banning of the ANC as an illegal organisation, but the massacre proved to be one of the catalysts for a shift from passive resistance to armed resistance by these organisations.

The ANC founded a military wing — Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation.

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On the December 10 1996 president Nelson Mandela chose Sharpeville as the site to sign into law his new constitution of South Africa.

The 69 martyrs of Sharpeville had not died in vain.

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First published in the Morning Star 21 March.

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