/ 26 March 2024

Gaza’s humanitarian aid massacre through the lens of Sharpeville

Safrica Apartheid Mandela Obit
Wounded people lie in the street on March 21, 1960 in Sharpeville, where security forces massacred 67 protesters. In 1960, police shot 69 black people in the Sharpeville township, south of Johannesburg, during a protest against pass laws, which restricted black people's movement. (STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)

On 21 March 1960 in the dusty and populous black township of Sharpeville, south of Johannesburg, a palpable tension hung heavy in the air. The Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) under the leadership of Robert Sobukwe had organised for several thousand unarmed demonstrators to protest in the vicinity of the local police station. The atmosphere crackled with defiance and determination as the crowd swelled and their voices raised in peaceful protest against the systematic injustices of apartheid and the relentless oppression of the pass laws. 

Police officers assembled in heavily armed rows, their presence a menacing reminder of the apartheid regime’s brutalising force. It was a moment pregnant with anticipation and as the crowd pressed forward, the mood shifted from hope to fear, when suddenly, the air was rent with sharp cracks of gunfire, sending shockwaves of panic rippling through the crowd. Chaos erupted as people scattered in all directions, desperate to escape the deadly onslaught. Cries of pain and anguish pierced the air, mingling with the staccato bursts of gunfire.

In the aftermath of the violence, the landscape was transformed into a scene of carnage and devastation. The acrid smell of tear gas choked the senses and added to the sense of disorientation and despair. Bodies lay strewn across the ground, their lifeless forms a grim reminder of the brutality of the state’s response. Sixty-nine people had been killed and hundreds wounded, including dozens of women and children. 

The events of that fateful day would leave an indelible mark on the collective consciousness of South Africa and the world insofar as the human cost of oppression and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity, subjugation and persecution.

In South Africa it provoked a sense of national urgency as the government scrambled to justify its brutal response in the face of international outrage, from countries including the United States. For the first time in its history, the United Nations Security Council intervened on a South African domestic policy, issuing a firm statement expressing its deep concern over the loss of life in Sharpeville. The UN Security Council resolution of 1960 stated that having “considered the complaint of 29 member states, “it recognised that such a situation has been brought  about by the racial policies of the government of the Union of South Africa and the continued disregard by that government of the resolutions of the General Assembly calling upon it to revise its policies and bring  them into conformity with its obligations and responsibilities under the Charter of the United Nations”.

The Sharpeville Massacre precipitated extensive international censure and scrutiny of the apartheid regime, tanking the JSE and accelerating capital flow out of the country. Numerous countries instituted economic sanctions and diplomatic actions targeting South Africa in direct response to the atrocity. This event underscored the ethical insolvency inherent in apartheid policies and fostered a surge in global solidarity with the anti-apartheid cause. 

In response to Sharpeville, on 26 March 1960, ANC president Chief Albert Luthuli announced a nationwide protest and stay-at-home for 28 March. He publicly burnt his pass in Pretoria and urged others to do the same. In Soweto, Nelson Mandela and Duma Nokwe burnt their passes before hundreds of people and photographers. Two days later, scores of people from around South Africa rioted in response to the massacre in Sharpeville. The government proceeded to declare a State of Emergency, instituting sweeping powers to act against all forms of political dissent. Curiously, South Africa would wait another 64 years before it transitioned to a democracy. 

The Sharpeville Massacre serves as a poignant reminder when assessing the current situation in Israel-Palestine. Less than a month ago, a horrific incident described as the “flour massacre” took place on Gaza’s Al-Rashid Street. As aid trucks arrived, Israeli forces opened fire on a crowd of starving civilians desperately awaiting humanitarian aid, resulting in scenes reminiscent of Sharpeville. At least 118 Palestinians were killed, and 760 more were injured amid the screams of the wounded. This tragedy unfolded just a day after the World Food Programme warned the UN Security Council that over 500 000 people in Gaza faced the risk of famine. 

The “flour massacre” exemplifies the daily massacres of innocent civilians occurring at an extraordinary scale amidst a relentless aerial bombardment and an exacerbating and dire humanitarian crisis.

While acknowledging some contextual differences, such as the geopolitical dynamics and historical trajectories of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the egregious human rights violations taking place against civilians in Gaza bear a striking resemblance to Sharpeville in 1960. Despite a civilian death toll of more than 32,000 people, the UN’s Security Council remains supine. This, despite the UN Security Council adopting a resolution in December 2023, which explicitly calls for the ‘Protection of civilians and enabling of immediate humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in Gaza’.

As South Africans reflect on human rights month and the 64th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre, we must collectively call for a stop to the illegal occupation of Palestine, an end to the gross human rights violations, an immediate ceasefire and the prioritisation of a fair and just political solution. This call resonates strongly as we draw parallels to the situation in Gaza while remembering our own history.

Dr Ayesha Omar is a senior lecturer in political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and a British Academy International Fellow at SOAS, University of London, working on a new book project on black intellectual history in South Africa. Her book draws from the anti-apartheid archives in South Africa and across the world.