It occurred in a political conjuncture in which the humanity of African people, let alone their human rights, was not only contested but vehemently denied through the barrel of a gun. Police who fired on protesters, killing 69 and maiming scores, were mowing down “savages”, not humans. These were not humans to whom the small matter of “rights” bore any relevance. The pass laws provoked the marches in Sharpeville and Langa.
The massacre has to be seen in the wider context of consolidation of white supremacy - a link that is missing in the historiography of the massacre - and not a peculiarly capitalist manoeuvre choosing a working class-driven response. In the decade and a half following the end of World War II in 1945, the rapidly mechanising agricultural sector increasingly came under the control of historically poor Afrikaner bywoners-turned-successful-farmers, and this was forcing African families in to the urban labour market.
The empowered bywoners (sharecroppers) relied on the political machinery of the apartheid state to tilt the balance of power in the political economy in their favour, while consigning the African independent farmers they were displacing to conditions of social death in urban areas.
And when unemployed in urban areas, influx control regulations directed them into the reserves, where they would be cheap labour for the bywoners. The pass book, pivotal in the brutal application of influx control regulations, was resented not only because it was an irritation to be produced on demand by an apartheid police officer at the train station. Taken in their totality and in their long-term range, influx control regulations and the pass book used to enforce them were a systematic assault on the African way of life.
The organisational aspects of the protest march are thinly documented. Revisionist historians, falling over each other to bestow virtues even on the most innocuous of responses to white supremacy, such as the Sophiatown debacle, deliberately airbrush the protest march in Sharpeville out the historical narrative.
Yet, as an instance of mass mobilisation, the anti-pass march was a milestone in the history of the liberation struggle, foreshadowing any that went before it.
Elbowing it into the dark shadows of history is prompted more by the fact that it was organised by the PAC and not the ANC. This is a historical feud and contestation between the two, with the latter claiming that the march was undertaken 10 days prematurely by an opportunistic PAC too eager to earn undeserved political mileage.
The anti-pass campaign was therefore an attempt to pre-empt what would become a structural imperative - deportation of urban blacks to the impoverished reserves when unemployed.
This was the fate that would befall residents of Sharpeville, the majority of whom were employed at Iscor and African Cables in Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging. Participating in the protest was therefore a deliberate and calculated undertaking, as opposed to being spontaneous reaction. It was martyrdom personified.
The protest itself was well organised. A series of meetings was held in the weeks leading up to the event.
Robert Sobukwe, the PAC leader at the time, is known to have travelled to Evaton and Sharpeville on several occasions. He met with leaders of factory committees who were also residents of townships in the Vaal. And while expectations heightened in the weeks leading to the march, the announcement of the date was only made during the weekend before the fateful day of the march, allowing authorities little time to prepare.
The reaction to and consequences of the massacre were mixed. On the one hand it left in its wake a population of terrified subjects too bewildered to even contemplate another stab at white supremacy until roused out of their whimpering state by Steve Biko a decade-and-a-half later.
On the other, it provoked a consuming rage among men, mainly migrant workers in Cape Town and other urban centres that translated into daredevil acts of ritualised violence against those considered defenders of white supremacy.
Organised around “Poqo”, considered an armed formation of the PAC, these young men (and women) are known to have caused a measure of mayhem in the months following the massacre. Yet accounts of their prowls remain sketchy and, deliberately with malicious intent, completely airbrushed out of history.
To some, the “Poqo” uprising was a logical progression of, and a rational reaction to, the Sharpeville massacre. “Poqo’s” men unleashed violence at selected targets known to be local government officials and Bantustan leaders enforcing influx control regulations that were the cornerstone of the white supremacist order.
In the latter category was Kaizer Matanzima, then Chief Minister of Transkei, enthusiastically enforcing apartheid’s betterment schemes to the detriment of migrant workers in Cape Town. “Poqo” operatives made no less than half a dozen assassination attempts on Matanzima.
“Poqo” operatives are believed to have been behind the attack on a white family and a family friend camping on the banks of the Bashee River in the Eastern Cape.
Of the 40 Africans taken into police custody for their part in the attack, 22 were charged and convicted. It is not clear how many of those were sent to the gallows. Several other “Poqo”-related trials in the Eastern Cape, Cape Town and a few on the West Rand and in Krugersdorp in particular, followed and death sentences were imposed and executions carried out almost routinely between 1962 and 1968.
It is significant that some of the trials were happening simultaneously with the Rivonia Trial. Yet all media attention, local and international, was riveted on Nelson Mandela and the Umkhonto we Sizwe high command in Pretoria.
This served the apartheid regime well. Courts meted out death sentences to those suspected of being “Poqo” operatives with impunity. It is not only the state and powerful white interests that condemned the “Poqo” uprising.
Prominent politicians, mainly linked to the ANC and other formations, expressed deep resentment. Asked about his view on “Poqo” in an interview years later, when he had time to reflect, Sobukwe prevaricated. What is apparent is that he disapproved of their methods.
The “Poqo” uprising is to South African history what the Haitian Rebellion is to universal history. Just as the Haiti Rebellion is airbrushed out of academic records for raising the possibility of violent reaction to colonial rule, so is the “Poqo” uprising for raising the possibilities of violent attacks on people merely because they are white.
* Lebelo is an author and historian.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.