Let’s take a moment to remember why we’re not working today.
It was 1960. Verwoerd’s government had enacted new pass laws saying that black men had to carry, at all times, a dompas, which contained permission from white employers – temporary and revocable – to be in “white” cities. Failure to produce a pass at any time meant being beaten and imprisoned.
Robert Sobukwe and the PAC planned a protest. The idea was that protesters would present themselves at police stations without their passes, en masse, and demand to be arrested. The police couldn’t arrest half the country, they thought. The economy would grind to a halt if all the workers were in jail. Tens of thousands of people, all around the country, began to show up. It was supposed to be a perfect example of how powerful non-violent organised resistance could be.
In Langa (near Cape Town) and Sharpeville (near Vereeniging), the police opened fire on crowds of peaceful protesters. They did this with no warnings, and without firing any warning shots. The police were armed with sub-machine guns. In Sharpeville, the shooting lasted only 2 minutes. Afterwards, 70 people were dead and hundreds were injured. Most were shot in the back, trying to flee.
One police officer that day is recorded to have said, “If they do these things, they must learn their lessons the hard way.”
Over the next few days, the government declared a State of Emergency and arrested 18,000 people. Luthuli, Slovo, Mandela, Sisulu and other young leaders of the ANC publicly burned their passes. Both the ANC and the PAC were banned.
On 30 April the UN Security Council denounced Apartheid for the first time and called on Verwoerd’s government to abandon the policies. France and the UK both abstained that vote.
Following the Sharpeville and Langa massacres, both the PAC and the ANC launched their armed resistance wings. It was the end of the dream of a non-violent revolution in South Africa.