Sharpeville-Langa Massacre: 60 Years Later
"As adherents of Pan-Africanism today, it is our duty to mark the 60th Commemoration of the Sharpeville and Langa Massacres differently from all other previous commemorations. Let us use this opportunity to draw courage from the fallen heroes as we advance towards a Socialist Azania."
On March 21, 1960, the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), under the revolutionary leadership of Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, launched an anti-pass campaign against the apartheid colonial government, under the slogan "no bail, no defence". They presented themselves and the masses to the nearest police stations for arrest. They had not carried the dompas (literally, "dumb pass") as demanded by the apartheid government's illegitimate law. They dared the reactionaries to arrest them.
They knew the consequences. They knew the regime could react violently. Sobukwe had warned the regime not to have "young" white policemen who were trigger-happy and demanding Africans to disperse in minutes. The ultimate objective was to undermine the system by undermining its laws; the dompas was the first target. But more importantly, the campaign sought to give the masses confidence that everything can be done by and depends on them to overthrow the apartheid colonial government.
Blood was shed, people died; tears were the order of the day. The regime reacted with violence. It had no other option: either it was going to give up power or keep it by force. Nkrumah teaches – and the PAC understands through the mouth of Sobukwe – that those in power will not give it up to the oppressed; we must take it by force. They used force to keep their power.
The sound of the gun rattled, whistled and crackled, time and time again, as it pierced through Black skin, spilling the blood of Africans in the land of their forefathers, killing sixty-nine protesters and wounding many more.
There they lay motionless, blood oozing all over the place, like streams after a heavy summer rain. They lay motionless in the land that was a central question of the struggle: lifeless, landless, undignified, and robbed from their families. The chaos quickly grew silent, as the regime chased and mowed Africans down one by one in what was described as the best way the police could have dealt with the demonstration. These were fathers and brothers, breadwinners who were fighting for the right to call their souls their own, now lying motionless like debris, without any dignity in death. The country was shaken – an event that reminded us that it is darkest before dawn, as Sobukwe predicted in 1949.
Speaking about mental liberation in August 1959, Sobukwe said,
"Now for over three hundred years, the white foreign ruling minority has used its power to inculcate in the African the feeling of inferiority. This group has educated the African to accept the status quo of white supremacy and Black inferiority as normal…
It is our task to exorcise this slave mentality and to impart to the African masses that sense of self-reliance which will make them choose to starve in freedom rather than have plenty in bondage, the self-reliance that will make them prefer self-government to the good government preferred by the ANC’s leader."
Sobukwe continued to say that once the Status Campaign was launched, the masses would themselves come forward with suggestions for the extension of the area of assault – and that once that happened, the twilight of white supremacy and the dawn of African independence in this part of the continent will have set in.
On the eve of the anti-pass campaign, Sobukwe cautioned all regions and branches of the PAC to be aware that white rulers are going to be extremely ruthless, but that,
"...we must meet their hysterical brutality with calm, iron determination. We are fighting for the noblest cause on earth, the liberation of mankind. They are fighting to entrench an outworn, anachronistic vile system of oppression. We represent progress. They represent decadence. We represent the fresh fragrance of flowers in bloom; they represent the rancid smell of decaying vegetation. We have the whole continent on our side. We have history on our side. We will win!"
The 1960 Sharpeville Massacre – How it Began and What it Meant
"This is the call the African people have been waiting for! It has come! On Monday, 21st March 1960, we launch our positive, decisive campaign against the pass laws in this country.”
– Mangaliso Sobukwe, three days before Sharpeville
South Africa had started a new phase in her history.
'Sharpeville' is one of the oldest of six townships in the Vaal Triangle. It was named after John Lillie Sharpe who came to South Africa from Glasgow, Scotland as a secretary of Stewarts & Lloyds. Sharpe was elected to the Vereeniging Town Council in 1932 and held the position of mayor from 1934 to 1937. African land, named after a long-dead white settler.
A letter from Mangaliso Sobukwe to the Commissioner of South African Police, Major-General C.I Rademeyer, reads as follows:
"Sir: My organisation, the Pan Africanist Congress, will be starting a sustained, disciplined, non-violent campaign against pass laws on Monday, 21 March 1960. I have also given strict instructions, not only to the members of my organisation but also to the African people in general, that they should not allow themselves to be provoked into violent action by anyone. In a press statement I am releasing soon, I repeat that appeal and make one to the police.
I am now writing to you to ask you to instruct the police to refrain from actions that may lead to violence. It is unfortunately true that many white policemen, brought up in the hothouse of South Africa, regard themselves as champions of white supremacy and not as law officers. In the African they see an enemy, a threat, not to 'law and order' but to their privileges as whites.
I, therefore, appeal to you to instruct your men not to give impossible demands to my people. The usual mumbling by a police officer of an order requiring the people to disperse within three minutes, and almost immediately ordering a baton charge, deceives nobody and shows the police up as sadistic bullies. I sincerely hope that such actions will not occur this time. If the police are interested in maintaining 'law and order' they will have no difficulty at all. We will surrender ourselves to the police for arrest. If told to disperse, we will. But we cannot be expected to run helter-skelter because a trigger-happy, African-hating young white police officer has given thousands or even hundreds three minutes within which to remove their bodies from his immediate environment."
Speaking of the hard lessons of the uprising, Sobukwe says that,
"In Sharpeville we overcame the fear of consequences of disobeying colonial laws... It became respectable to go to jail and emerge as what Kwame Nkrumah called 'prison graduates'. We stripped the racial colonialists of that weapon against us. The white man in Soweto had to fall back on his gun... Soweto has been a lesson in overcoming the fear of the gun, and now that we, too, can get the gun, confrontation is inevitable."
The PAC was the first organisation to form a military wing, remaining the most effective group in armed struggle against the settler regime. The first organisation to have the first political prisoners fighting for our freedom; the first prisoners to be hanged. Its prisoners were the most tortured; the first to go in, the last to come out.
In the words of John Nyati Pokela,
"The significance of Sharpeville and Langa does not only lie in the fact that the people there marched to the police station in response to a call by PAC and offered themselves for arrest. There were anti-pass campaigns before. What highlights the Sharpeville campaign was that it was qualitatively and quantitatively different from previous anti-pass campaigns.
First and foremost, it was not a mere protest. The slogan under which the PAC leadership launched the 21 March, 1960 campaign was 'No Defence, No Bail, and No Fine.' This slogan itself reflected a new political approach and attitude... it reflected a conscious and principled rejection of the entire Fascist colonial status quo in apartheid South Africa."
As adherents of Pan-Africanism today, it is our duty to mark the 60th Commemoration of the Sharpeville and Langa Massacres differently from all other previous commemorations. Let us use this opportunity to launch the final assault against all systems of oppression inherent in a neo-colonial capitalist country like ours. Let us use this opportunity to draw courage from the fallen heroes as we advance towards a Socialist Azania.
Without Sobukwe's leadership, the United Nations would not have been seized with the problem of South Africa for over 30 years. As Frantz Fanon, the author of The Wretched of the Earth notes, it was the Sharpeville uprising led by Sobukwe which made the vile system of apartheid known internationally.
Without this uprising, there would never have been a United Nations special committee against apartheid. This world body would never have declared apartheid as a crime against humanity. As a result of Sobukwe's leadership, the UN, in honour of the martyrs of Sharpeville, declared March 21 the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Without Sobukwe's actions, there would also have never been the infamous Robben Island prison. Robben Island prison was primarily meant for Sobukwe and other PAC members, who were the first to be imprisoned on Robben Island on October 12th, 1962.
Post-1994 South Africa: A Study in Neo-Colonialism
An objective and constructive critique of the PAC in the neo-colonial epoch is valuable as a reflection and explanation of the PAC’s ideological and political paralysis, including the deterioration and disintegration of the PAC. Such a critique of the ideo-political and organisational condition of the party can be logical and of great value when it’s premised and preceded by reflection on the PAC’s founding ideological and theoretical foundation. Hence, we restate the two key sections from the PAC 1959 Africanist Manifesto and other official documents of the PAC since its formation in 6 April, 1959 to date.
"The Historic Tasks and Missions of the Party as per the 1959 founding documents are elaborated and adopted as follows:
That, the historic tasks of the African liberation movement are clearly the product of Africa’s history, of the forces and factors which have made it what it is. To attain complete freedom in Africa, the historic tasks of the movement are:
To forge, foster and consolidate the bonds of African nationhood on Pan African basis. To implement effectively:
The fundamental principal that the domination or sovereignty over and the dominion or ownership in the whole territory of the continent rest exclusively and inalienably in the indigenous people.
To create and maintain a United States of Africa that will serve and provide and provide a concrete institutional form for the African nation."
The PAC's current problems are primarily a manifestation of the unresolved ideo-political orientation of the PAC. The unresolved or unexplained ideological problems and questions confronting the party are:
Is the PAC a nationalist bourgeois party to contest elections within the capitalist framework, hoping in this way to liberate the downtrodden, landless and property-less Afrikan majority and ensure equitable distribution of wealth? Put differently: Can the PAC, as a nationalist bourgeois party, overthrow capitalism and white supremacy?
Or, is the PAC a Revolutionary party, guided by scientific socialism, committed to land repossession, committed to overthrow-and-eradicate white supremacy and capitalism, and is it willing to establish an Afrikanist Socialist Democracy?
How can the parliamentary path of the neo-colonial system, a contest for national parliamentary elections, deliver an Africanist Socialist Democracy and emancipate the labouring Afrikan majority? What’s the meaning of the idea that the illiterate and semi-literate are the key and cornerstone of the African revolution/liberation struggle to achieve an Africanist Socialist Democracy? Who constitutes the illiterate and semi-literates who constitute the motive force to advance the Azanian and the Pan Africanist Revolution? Can the settler-colonial apartheid system –cemented with the pass laws of 1952 and still alive in the form of the 1994 neo-colonial state – be reformed, or should it be overthrown and eradicated?
What is the relevance, correctness or limitations of the two-stage theory ('a nationalist revolution led by the black bourgeoisie/capitalist class must happen before a socialist revolution') to resolve the national question? Broadly, the fundamental question is to determine the dialectical correctness of two-stage theory in the context of settler colonialism. Is the nationalist revolution in conflict and irreconcilable with the socialist revolution in an African Revolution characterized by settler colonialism (which in 1994 evolved to neo-colonialism)? What is the meaning and application of an Africanist Socialist Democracy and how can it be achieved? Can its achievement be realized without a socialist revolution? How do Raboroko and Sobukwe explain the PAC position in the Africanist Case party literature?
The ideo-political questions of the PAC are historical problems where a nationalist bourgeoisie grouping succeeded for many years to exercise influence, maintain control and leadership over the PAC, and has effectively marginalised revolutionary Pan-Africanists who subscribe to scientific socialism, such as those party members who formed the African People’s Revolutionary Party and the Revolutionary Watchdogs. Both APRP and the Revolutionary Watchdogs ceased to exist as “formations”. However, their political-theoretical orientation and teachings still exist as the determination to overthrow white domination and capitalism. AZANYU and PASO (revolutionary youth orgs) subscribed to scientific socialism as a revolutionary theory to overthrow white domination and capitalism, aiming to achieve the socialist democratic organisation of the African people in Azania.
These are historic ideological and philosophical problems that remain unresolved, and they constitute the basis for defining the party’s political programme and strategies. Is Pan-Africanism a revolutionary political theory, is it an ideology or philosophy? Politically, an aspirant comprador/aspirant nationalist bourgeoisie grouping, has gained control and leadership of the party, but still the party remain confronted and haunted by these unresolved historic ideological and philosophical questions, such as the overthrow of capitalism and white supremacy as a necessary goal for establishing an Africanist Socialist Democracy.
Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe proclaims:
“Our historic mission is to establish an Africanist Socialist democratic social order, recognizing the PRIMACY of the vital material, intellectual and spiritual interests of the INDIVIDUAL.”
With this understanding in mind, the Africanists in the 1960 Status Campaign knew that their struggle was not linear, but fully cyclical, covering all aspects of social existence. This is because, as Sobukwe says, “Man is therefore a social being and not an economic animal,” – society is not a straightforward, but rather a dialectical conception.
Inspired by the undying and defiant spirit of Mangaliso Sobukwe, the Africanists are marching Forward towards unity, and carrying Forward with our historic mission. Backwards Never, Forward Ever, towards land repossession and the overthrow of capitalism and neo-colonialism.