At critical points in worker history, state brutality has reared its ugly head to silence discontent. From colonial oppression to apartheid criminality, our country has experienced periodic episodes of intense repression. This Saturday marks the 60th remembrance of the Sharpeville Massacre when the police opened fire on unarmed protestors, killing 69 people, and seriously wounding a further 180.
As we mark 26 years of freedom and democracy, opinions vary about the wisdom of constantly reflecting on our fractured past. We must acknowledge that our fledgling democracy is in a fragile state. To remember, reflect and restore thus becomes necessary in the national psyche.
At the turn of the last century and almost 50 years before Sharpeville, our country bore witness to ordinary workers bravely challenging state oppression and capitalist exploitation. In 1913, there was a strike of 9000 African miners at Jagersfontein Diamond mine in Bloemfontein. This was after a white overseer kicked a worker to death. In the ensuing protest, eleven African mineworkers were killed and 37 injured.
In the very same year, 40 000 indentured Indian workers went on strike in the then Natal in what many historians regard as South Africa’s first mass protest. The real death toll of workers flowing from the state and employers’ repressive response is yet to be tallied. According to University of KwaZulu-Natal historian, Professor Kalpana Hiralal, and other sources there are likely several more deaths than those recorded. One should also take into account that thousands were detained both in formal prisons as well as on plantations and mines that were declared prisons by the government of the day.
Closer to home in Mt Edgecombe, South African Defence Force (SADF) archives record that: “ In the most serious confrontations between police and strikers, a number of workers were shot dead and others gravely injured.” Part of the records show that five Indians were killed and nine wounded at Blackburn and Hillhead barracks of Natal Estates Ltd., Mount Edgecombe, on November 27, 1913. At the inquest, which was held before the Acting Magistrate of Verulam, the doctor who examined the dead said, “the five were shot from the back”.
Seven years later in yet another example of worker brutality, in October 1920, and in the midst of a militant strike instigated by a faction of the Port Elizabeth Industrial and Commercial Workers’ (Amalgamated) Union of Africa, a combined force of police and deputised white civilians opened fire on unarmed black protestors outside a police station in Port Elizabeth. In the ensuring chaos, 24 protestors were killed.
By the middle of the 20th Century, the world had changed dramatically after two world wars instigated by the imperial powers. The 1960s saw dramatic shifts from imperialism and colonial rule to hard-won liberation.
The rapid acceleration of African independence resulted in 32 countries gaining independence between 1960 and 1968, marking the (nominal) end of the European empires that had dominated the African continent. On 3 February 1960, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made a prophetic “Wind of Change’ speech in the white South African Parliament. In spite of those pleas by the former colonial master, the South African regime remained headstrong on its path of racial segregation and privileging the white race.
The seeds of discontent were already sown. Worker militancy was on the rise for at least a decade and a half. There was the great 1946 African Mine Worker’s Strike and the 1946 Indian Passive Resistance campaign. A path-breaking non-racial platform was launched in 1947 with the Joint Declaration of Cooperation or Three Doctors’ Pact signed by the presidents of the ANC, Natal Indian Congress and Transvaal Indian Congress. Democrats from across the racial spectrum joined in the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People at Kliptown which drafted the Freedom Charter. There was no racial discrimination in the 1956 Treason Trial when political activists from all communities including Inkosi Albert Luthuli, Dr Monty Naicker, Jacqueline Arenstein and Alex la Guma were detained.
After the Nationalist Party’s victory in the apartheid election of 1948, more repression laws came into force. To control Africans within white residential areas, the colonial authorities developed the ‘Durban System’, a precursor to the dreaded Pass Laws. The Durban System required Africans to apply for a permit to stay in the city. The Native Beer Act of 1908 reinforced and supported the Durban System, by putting money in the coffers of the municipality. It was a means of ensuring ready access to cheap African labour through subsidising hostels, while at the same time taking work away from African women, who prior to the introduction of the Act were the main suppliers of sorghum beer.
In 1959, women of Cato Manor rose in revolt against the persistent police raids. The protest led by seasoned activists like Dorothy Nyembe shook the white establishment. A photograph by Daily News photographer Laurie Bloomfield showing police brutality became a global symbol of apartheid repression. The grievances were exacerbated by forced removals, in the name of slum clearance, to the far off township of KwaMashu. On the Sunday afternoon of 24 January 1960, the prolonged standoff erupted. Nine policemen lost their lives in Cato Manor when residents simply lost control after years of systematic abuse at the hand of the police.
The apartheid police were on the boil. On 21 March 1960, the Sharpeville Massacre, an incredibly violent state response to peaceful protest altered the trajectory of our history. There are well-founded opinions that the trigger-happy reaction of the police at Sharpeville and Langa followed the police fatalities at Cato Manor just two months earlier.
Humphrey Tyler, then assistant editor of Drum magazine recounted: “We went into Sharpeville the back way, behind a grey police car and three Saracens. As we drove through the fringes of the township many people shouted the Pan-Africanist slogan ‘Izwe Lethu’, which means ‘Our Land’, or gave the thumbs-up ‘freedom’ salute and shouted ‘Afrika!’
Ian Berry, a Drum magazine photographer recalled: “March 21st was my day off and I was at home when I heard on the news that someone had been shot outside Sharpeville … When we got to Sharpeville, spotter planes were circling overhead and about fifteen cars were waiting on the outskirts of the township. … The cops were now standing on top of their armoured cars waving sten guns, and when I was fifty yards away from the compound they opened fire into the crowd. I can’t say for sure that nobody lobbed a stone at the police, but I do not believe a threatening situation had built up in the time it took me to walk the two sides of the compound and back. The cops were in no danger. I can only assume that they came out with the intention of showing the crowd, and in the process black South Africa, a dreadful lesson…”
That dreadful lesson included the banning of the ANC and PAC forcing those organisations underground and into exile. Again and again, history records police action as resulting in injuries or fatalities. Resistance milestones that stand out include the 1973 Durban Strikes, the 1976 nationwide uprisings sparked in Soweto, the 1980 school boycotts and the 1986 state of emergency. An ugly blot on our democratic landscape is of course the conduct of police at Marikana.
The COVID-19 pandemic puts paid to a mass remembrance of the martyrs of Sharpville and the Langa Flats. That tragic episode is however a treasured memorialisation of the collective history of workers from all communities rising in revolt in the face of repression.
The authors Kiru Naidoo & Selvan naidoo, together with Advocate Zandile Qono-Reddy are part of the Sites of Conscience Collective recording history and heritage related to the freedom struggle.