Such was the impact of poet Ingrid Jonker that decades after her death in 1965, the late Nelson Mandela read her poem, The Child who Was Shot Dead by Soldiers at Nyanga, at the opening of the first democratic Parliament on 24 May 1994.
“The time will come when our nation will honour the memory of all the sons, the daughters, the mothers, the fathers, the youth and the children who, by their thoughts and deeds, gave us the right to assert with pride that we are South Africans, that we are Africans and that we are citizens of the world,” he said 20 years ago.
“The certainties that come with age tell me that among these we shall find an Afrikaner woman who transcended a particular experience and became a South African, an African and a citizen of the world. Her name is Ingrid Jonker. She was both a poet and a South African. She was both an Afrikaner and an African. She was both an artist and a human being.”
She had written the poem following a visit to the Philippi police station to see the body of a child who had been shot dead in his mother’s arms by the police in the township of Nyanga in Cape Town. It happened in the aftermath of the massacre of 69 people in Sharpeville, south of Johannesburg, in March 1960. They were marching to the police station to protest against having to carry passbooks.
Black South Africans were traditionally subject to pass laws intended to control and direct their movement and employment since the nineteenth century. Under the nation’s predominantly Afrikaner government, the increasing number of black residents in urban districts were subject to influx control measures. Individuals over sixteen were compelled to carry passbooks, which contained an identity card, employment and influx authorisation from a labour bureau, name of employer and address, and details of personal history. Leading up to the Sharpeville massacre, the National Party administration under the leadership of Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd used these laws to enforce greater racial segregation and, in 1959-1960, extended them to include women. From the 1960s, the pass laws were the primary instrument used by the state to detain and harass its political opponents.
In 1961 the African National Congress (ANC) prepared to initiate 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.
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 20,000, and the mood was described as “ugly”, prompting about 130 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 policemen) and menacing the police barricades. Tear gas proved ineffectual, and policemen elected to repel these advances with their batons. At about 13:00 the police tried to arrest a protestor, resulting in a scuffle, and the crowd surged forward. The shooting began shortly thereafter.
Death and injury toll
The official figure is that 69 people were killed, including 8 women and 10 children, and 180 injured, including 31 women and 19 children. Many were shot in the back as they turned to flee.
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.
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