Sharpeville - 'They didn't have to die'

KHADIJA MAGARDIE, Johannesburg | Friday

A RECENTLY released book on the Sharpeville massacre looks set to create waves in academic and political circles. The controversial findings in An Ordinary Atrocity, by University of the Witwatersrand academic Philip Frankel, include the claim that poor planning skills and “quixotic elements” within the ranks of the organisers, the Pan Africanist Congress, was partly to blame for the tragedy.

According to Frankel the book’s title is deeply ironic.
The words are those of a former security branch policeman to describe the events building up to and on March 21 1960.

An internationally renowned expert in civil-military studies, Frankel says his interest lay in what drove the state security apparatus to open fire on unarmed, defenceless protesters. “I am intrigued by what makes a seemingly ordinary guy turn into a killer,” he says.

Although emphasising that there can never be any ethical equivalence between killers and the killed, Frankel notes that the time has come to view what happened at Sharpeville through the lens of fact. “A mythology has developed around the massacre, which has rendered it virtually immune to objective analysis.”

He believes the massacre “is not a matter of intrinsically evil men involved in the modern slaughter of the innocents at the behest of a neo-fascist state. No one ultimately emerges entirely untainted from the real Sharpeville story.” The 117 witness accounts in the book paint a picture different to the “standard version” of the massacre’s history. At the heart of events, Frankel says, was crowd control.

Virtually none of the black policemen on duty at the Sharpeville police station were from the township and on the day of the protest, young, inexperienced and heavily armed reservists were bused in from other stations as reinforcements. One of the PAC officials recalls asking a senior officer: “Why have you sent us seuntjies [little boys] with big guns and takkies?”

This, Frankel finds, had dramatic consequences for the way in which the protest ended. Police on duty that day had little, if any, experience in crowd control or riot situations.

Armed with heavy weapons like Sten guns and high-calibre rifles, many fired out of fear or because they saw other officers shooting.

A forensic report revealed that some of the police weapons were not fired at all. Few, Frankel found, were “shooting with relish”.

But it is the PAC, the organisers of the protest against the infamous pass laws, that comes under heavy attack. Frankel says the party had a penchant for “individual spontaneity” when it came to protests and had vastly different tactics of political mobilisation to those employed by the African National Congress, which operated in a planned and carefully orchestrated manner.

Frankel says the PAC’s code of conduct offered little in the way of operational principles to be employed in the struggle, which had tragic consequences in Sharpeville.

The lack of proper planning was compounded by the presence of criminal elements within the PAC.

Eyewitness accounts of March 21 paint a picture of thuggery within PAC ranks, including people being dragged out of their homes to attend the protest against their will, and well-known “organisers” spending hours in the beerhall the night before.

When the shooting began and panic ensued, the death toll—it is implied—could have been reduced had there been contingency plans by the PAC.

Sharpeville, concludes Frankel, did not have to happen—it was a “mistake, an aberration” and “a tragic example of what can happen when neither protesters nor police have in place the means with which to deal with crowd control”. PAC secretary general Thami ka Plaatjie said he had not read the book, but had “heard” it contained unfavourable reports about the party’s role. Ka Plaatjie, who has written several accounts of Sharpeville, says the issues raised by Frankel were “rehashed”—particularly those relating to the “spontaneous nature” of PAC organisation.

“The PAC has always believed its role in Sharpeville to be misunderstood, and helped the author by way of accessing him to information, in a bid to clear this up,” he said.

Ka Plaatjie said that it was “unfair” to compare the organisational tactics of the PAC, then newly formed, with those of the ANC, which had by March 1960 been in existence and organising for more than 50 years. - Mail & Guardian

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