March 21st marks Human Rights Day in South Africa. A national holiday that affirms the fundamental rights and dignity of all people, its date of observance commemorates the tragic events at Sharpeville in 1960 and the human costs of the fight for freedom.
Bravely answering a call from the Pan Africanist Congress to protest pass laws[i], a peaceful crowd of 5,000-7,000 people gathered in the town of Sharpeville, a township about an hour’s drive south of Johannesburg. That afternoon, police confronted the crowd on armored Saracen trucks, shooting as people ran for their lives. The police killed 69 people and wounded 180.
Photographs made during the harrowing event and in its aftermath circulated widely, driving national and international condemnation of the events at Sharpeville.[ii] Photographs by Ian Berry showing scenes of people fleeing the gunfire and the devastating aftermath circulated widely through Western publications with wide international readerships like Life and Paris-Match magazines. Soon thereafter, books like Bishop Ambrose Reeves’ Shooting at Sharpeville: The Agony of South Africa (1960), which includes a foreword by Chief Albert Luthuli, the leader of the African National Congress, republished the images alongside more in-depth accounts of what took place that day. Those books reproduced photographs made at the scene, offering crucial evidence about the wanton violence of government forces. Photographers including Drum magazine’s Peter Magubane and Jürgen Schadeberg and New Age journalist Joe Gqabi documented the massacre’s aftermath and funeral.
As the struggle against apartheid continued in the three decades that followed, many activists returned to photographs from Sharpeville using images from that day in their efforts, both to memorialize the event itself and to argue for the connection between doing business in South Africa and its history of atrocities committed to oppress Black people. The broad circulation and re-publication of these images made significant impact on viewers and indicate the belief held by many that showing these images would appeal to viewers’ humanity and help advocate for changes in policy. In the immediate aftermath of the March 21st, 1960 massacre at Sharpeville, the South African government took an even firmer stance against protest, making mass arrests, banning the Pan Africanist Congress and African National Congress, and broadly stifling open dissent until the Soweto uprisings in 1976 propelled a new era of mass protests. But people from Sharpeville and those fighting for freedom within South Africa and beyond, continued in their struggle and have ensured that the day’s events continue to be remembered.
The text above is adapted from a section of the interpretive materials of the exhibition not all realisms: photography, Africa, and the long 1960s (February 23–June 4, 2023), which broadly addresses the role of photography as a documentary medium in Ghana, Mali, and South Africa throughout the 1960s. The following primary and secondary sources offer a further level of introduction to the events at Sharpeville and Human Rights Day in South Africa:
Article, South African History Online
21 March 1960 Collection, South African History Online
Statement from the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa: Human Rights Day
Posters from the Herskovits Collection
South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid, Building Democracy
Michigan State University
Digital Innovation South Africa
University of Kwa-Zulu Natal
[i] Pass laws were one of the cornerstones of instituting and maintaining racial segregation in South Africa. While laws restricting the free movement of Black people have a long history of use in South Africa, the Pass Laws Act of 1952 strengthened and extended those controls, requiring all Black South Africans over the age of 16 to carry identification booklets that showed where they were officially permitted to be and when.
[ii] Protestors gathered in multiple locations around South Africa, including the town of Langa, where police also responded violently.