The Sharpeville massacre occurred on 21 March 1960, at the police station in the South African township of Sharpeville in Transvaal (today part of Gauteng). After a day of demonstrations against the Pass laws, a crowd of about 5,000 to 7,000 black African protesters went to the police station. The South African police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people. Sources disagree as to the behaviour of the crowd; some state that the crowd was peaceful, while others state that the crowd had been hurling stones at the police, and that the shooting started when the crowd started advancing toward the fence around the police station. In present-day South Africa, 21 March is celebrated as a public holiday in honour of human rights and to commemorate the Sharpeville massacre.
Since the 1920s, the movements of black South Africans had been restricted by pass laws. Leading up to the Sharpeville massacre, the apartheid-supporting National Party government under the leadership of Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd used these laws to enforce greater segregation and, in 1959-1960, extended them to include women, the pass laws were the primary instrument used by the state to arrest and harass its political opponents. By the same token, it was mainly the popular resistance, mobilised against those pass laws, that kept resistance politics alive during this period.
The African National Congress (ANC) had decided to launch a campaign of protests against pass laws. These protests were to begin on 31 March 1960, but the rival Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) decided to pre-empt the ANC by launching its own campaign ten days earlier, on 21 March, because they believed that the ANC could not win the campaign. On March 21, a group of between 5,000 and 10,000 people converged on the local police station in the township of Sharpeville, offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying their passbooks.The Sharpeville police were not completely unprepared for the demonstration, as they had already been forced to drive smaller gangs of more militant activists away the previous night. Many of the civilians present attended to support the protest, but there is evidence that the PAC also used intimidating means to draw the crowd there, including the cutting of telephone lines into Sharpeville, the distribution of pamphlets telling people not to go to work on the day, and coercion of bus drivers and commuters.
By 10:00, a large crowd had gathered, and the atmosphere was initially peaceful and festive. Fewer than 20 police officers were present in the station at the start of the protest. Later the crowd grew to about 19,000, and the mood began turning unexpectedly hostile. The increasingly agitated mob now adopted a common attitude which was later described as "insulting, menacing, and provocative", prompting about 140 police reinforcements, supported by four Saracen Armoured personnel carriers, to be rushed in. The police were armed with firearms, including Sten submachine guns and Lee-Enfield rifles. There was no evidence that anyone in the gathering was armed with anything other than rocks. F-86 Sabre jets and Harvard Trainers approached to within a hundred feet of the ground, flying low over the crowd in an attempt to scatter it. The protestors responded by hurling a few stones (striking three people) and menacing the police barricades. Tear gas proved ineffectual, and policemen were forced to repel these advances with their batons. At about 13:00 the police tried to arrest an alleged ringleader. There was a scuffle, and the throng surged forward. The shooting began shortly thereafter.
Police reports in 1960 claimed that young and inexperienced police officers panicked and opened fire spontaneously, setting off a chain reaction that lasted about forty seconds. It is likely that the police were nervous as two months before the massacre nine constables had been murdered under similar circumstances at Cato Manor. In addition, nearly all policemen present had received no previous training regarding the control of mob disturbances. Most of them had already been coping with the situation for over twenty-four hours without respite. Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar, the commanding officer of the police reinforcements at Sharpeville, said in his statement that "the native mentality does not allow them to gather for a peaceful demonstration. For them to gather means violence."He also denied giving any order to fire and stated that he would not have done so.
Other evidence given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission 38 years later in 1998 by two of the victims suggested "a degree of deliberation in the decision to open fire".The uproar among South Africa's black population was immediate, and the following week saw demonstrations, protest marches, strikes, and riots around the country. On 30 March 1960, the government declared a state of emergency, detaining more than 18,000 people, including prominent anti-apartheid activists who were known as members of the Congress Alliance.
A storm of international protest followed the Sharpeville shootings, including sympathetic demonstrations in many countries and condemnation by the United Nations. On 1 April 1960, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 134. Sharpeville marked a turning point in South Africa's history; the country found itself increasingly isolated in the international community. The event also played a role in South Africa's departure from the Commonwealth of Nations in 1961.The Sharpeville massacre led to the banning of the PAC and ANC as illegal organizations. The massacre was one of the catalysts for a shift from passive resistance to armed resistance by these organisations. The foundation of Poqo, the military wing of the PAC, and Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, followed shortly afterwards.