By BO Staff Writer
Today, 57 years ago, the leader of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, woke up at 5 a.m. in his home in Mofolo, Soweto, and got ready for the day of planned nationwide action against pass laws.
It is said that from as early as August 1959, “Sobukwe was having secret discussions inside the PAC” about the campaign.
According to a biography of Sobukwe by Benjamin Pogrund titled ‘How can man die better’, when Sobukwe left his house that morning, he was met by six of his comrades which he greeted with a warm “iAfrika!”, to which they responded, “izwe lethu!”.
The PAC, which was formed after a breakaway from the African National Congress (ANC) by Pan-Africanists who, amongst other reasons, differed with the Freedom Charter’s proclamation that ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white’, had planned that the day’s mass action would include workers leaving their passes at home and giving themselves over to the police for arrest.
Anticipating that the state would not have the capacity to handle the large masses of people in jails, this would put “pressure on the government through clogging police stations, courts and jails, and on employers to intervene because they would be without labour.”
The ANC had planned for March 31 to be ‘Anti-Pass’ day, but Sobukwe predicted that the ANC’s campaign would “fizzle-out”, dampening the spirits of the black masses. He then planned for a sooner date and invited the ANC, which rejected the invitation.
Sobukwe travelled around the country, spreading the message of the campaign, a message which resonated particularly well on the townships of Cape Town – Langa and Nyanga to be exact.
On the morning of the anti-pass march, Sobukwe, joined by about 200 other people, marched to a police station in Orlando, where they handed themselves to the police to be arrested for not carrying their passes. They were arrested later that day.
Meanwhile, an hour outside Johannesburg, crowds of thousands of blacks marched in Sharpeville. Groups from the crowd went inside the Sharpeville police station asking to be arrested. While the crowd was standing outside the station, with no provocation, the police started shooting indiscriminately, claiming that they were frightened by the crowd.
“Before the shooting, I heard no warning to the crowd to disperse. There was no warning volley. When the shooting started it did not stop until there was no living thing in the huge compound in front of the police station,” Humphrey Tyler, assistant editor, Drum magazine is reported to have said after the shooting. “The police have claimed they were in desperate danger because the crowd was stoning them. Yet only three policemen were reported to have been hit by stones – and more than 200 Africans were shot down. The police also have said that the crowd was armed with ‘ferocious weapons’, which littered the compound after they fled. I saw no weapons, although I looked very carefully, and afterwards studied the photographs of the death scene.”
On the other side of the country, in Cape Town, a crowd of about 3000 – 5000, led by University of Cape Town (UCT) student and PAC leader Phillip Kgosana, gathered at an assembly point in Langa township. Not wanting to move from the directive of the PAC leadership on non-violence, Kgosana dispersed the crowd because he feared violence might ensue.
That same evening, an even bigger crowd gathered at the Langa police station, “apparently in the belief that the authorities were to give them an answer to their complaints about the passes.” This was not the case (instead, after Sharpville massacre happened earlier in the day, public gatherings had been banned), and again with no provocation or notice, the police beat the crowds with batons, to which the protesters responded with a barrage of stones, before the police opened fire, killing three and injuring more than 20 others.
A couple of days later, in continuation with the anti-pass campaign, a defiant Kgosana led thousands of protesters to a police station in the Cape Town city centre. When he got there, he was tricked by the police, who told him to disperse the crowd “in return for a meeting with J B Vorster, then Minister of Justice. However, when he arrived for the meeting he was arrested and a cordon of police, army and navy and reserve battalions was thrown around Langa and Nyanga.”
The days following these massacres was characterized by unbearable violence in the townships. A state of emergency was declared and both the PAC and the ANC were banned. This then also marked the beginning of the armed struggle in South Africa.
In the story of the Sharpeville and Langa massacres, the strong leadership of Sobukwe and the defiance of the people shines through.
Sobukwe believed in leading from the front, “he would not ask others to do what he was not himself willing to do.” As stated in his biography, Sobukwe believed that “leaders had to prove that they were going to share the burden with their people; members could not be expected to adhere to the PAC’s slogan, ‘Service, Sacrifice, Suffering’, unless they saw the leaders living it themselves.”
On this day, on 21 March 1960, hundreds of black people were murdered and others left eternally scared by the apartheid regime. We honour those who lost their lives and those families who lost loved ones.