Nelson Mandela’s Living Legacy

Nelson Mandela’s Living Legacy | 1960 – Sharpeville opens the ‘silent Sixties’

The Sharpeville shooting marked a turning point in Apartheid’s fortunes. The massacre of 69 protestors by police galvanised world opinion and was the first real shot-in-the-arm to the anti-Apartheid movement in the West. Meanwhile, inside the country, Sharpeville set off a wave of rioting and unrest and set the stage for an entirely new level of Government repression in the decade to come.

Nelson Mandela’s Living Legacy
The images at Sharpeville travelled around the world and were, for many abroad, the first image of Apartheid's real consequences
The images at Sharpeville travelled around the world and were, for many abroad, the first image of Apartheid’s real consequences (ANC Archives)

Read the previous post: Nelson Mandela’s Living Legacy | 1956: On Trial for Treason

In April 1959, militant Africanists dissatisfied with the ANC’s united front approach founded the Pan-African Congress (PAC); Mandela’s friend Robert Sobukwe was elected president, though Mandela thought the group “immature” due to its explicitly Black Africanist conception of liberation in South Africa. Mandela thought this a limited view compared to the ANC’s far-sighted principle of non-racial liberation – or what he referred to in his 1990 speech, when he said “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against white domination”.

However, the parties had many goals in common and both campaigned for an anti-pass campaign in May 1960, in which Africans burned the passes that they were legally obliged to carry. One of the PAC-organized demonstrations was fired upon by police, resulting in the deaths of 69 protesters: Sharpeville. This single massacre changed everything, both inside and outside the country. The shootings at Sharpeville put the match to a large keg of longstanding resentment among non-whites, and rioting broke out across South Africa. Meanwhile, abroad, many commentators who had hitherto refrained from denouncing Apartheid outright now did so, and the anti-Apartheid movement in the West began in earnest.

In solidarity with those killed at Sharpeville, Mandela publicly burned his pass as rioting broke out across South Africa, leading the government to proclaim martial law. Under the State of Emergency measures, Mandela and other activists were arrested on 30 March and imprisoned without charge in the unsanitary conditions of the Pretoria Local prison, while the ANC and PAC were banned in April. This made it difficult for their lawyers to reach them, and it was agreed that the defence team for the Treason Trial should withdraw in protest. Representing themselves in court, the accused were freed from prison when the state of emergency was lifted in late August. Mandela used his free time to organise an All-In African Conference near Pietermaritzburg, Natal, in March, at which 1,400 anti-apartheid delegates met, agreeing on a stay-at home protest to mark 31 May, the day South Africa became a republic. On 29 March 1961, after a six-year trial, the judges produced a verdict of not guilty, embarrassing the government.


Read more:

Nelson Mandela’s Living Legacy | 1955: The Freedom Charter and its aftermath

Nelson Mandela’s Living Legacy | 1953: In search of a ‘Freedom Charter’ for the Struggle

Nelson Mandela’s Living Legacy | Early Apartheid and the start of resistance 1947-1949 

Nelson Mandela’s Living Legacy | Marriage, Family…and the ANCYL 1944-1947

Nelson Mandela’s Living Legacy | The Early years in Johannesburg: ’40-’43

Nelson Mandela’s Living Legacy | Clarkebury, Healdtown and Fort Hare: ‘36-’40

Mandela’s Living Legacy | 1918-1928: The herdboy becomes a Thembu prince