The road to Sharpeville

Chaskalson, Matthew
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The Sharpeville shootings are a landmark o-f the South African past. People with only a fleeting knowledge of South African history are aware of the events of 21 March 1960 and Sharpeville Day is annually commemorated by opponents of apartheid all over the world. Nevertheless, there is remarkably little awareness of the local history of Vereeniging that led up to the shootings. This history makes fascinating reading. For one of its distinguishing characteristics was the success of the Vereeniging Town Council's administration of its two African townships, Sharpeville and Top Location. Throughout the 1950s Sharpeville was recognised across the country as the model African township, and the Council was able to censor almost all local African political activity (1). In the light of this it was particularly anomalous that the declaration of the State of Emergency in I960 should have been prompted by events in Sharpeville- However, most accounts of the Sharpeville shootings have not even noticed this anomaly, let alone offered any explanation for it (2). Rather, they look at the background to the shootings only in terms of the PAC's national campaign against the passes. It is a central premise of this paper that such an approach to the problem of explaining the Sharpeville shootings is inadequate- For it begs the question of why it was in Sharpeville as opposed to anywhere else in the Union that the PAC's campaign received its strongest response, a question that can only be answered by examinining the local history that led up to the shootings. It is to this history, then, that I address myself in the following paper. The paper's first two sections describe the social and economic development of Vereeniging up to the 1950s and the administration of its African townships. I then examine tensions around police raids and rising rents that built up in Vereeniging's townships over the 1950s, and relate these to processes described in the first two sections. Finally I look at the Council's removal of Top Location residents to Sharpeville in 1958/59, and show how the PAC was able to capitalise on the residents' grievances relating to the removal and to the, issues of raids and rent (3).
African Studies Seminar series. Paper presented September, 1986
Sharpeville (South Africa), South Africa. History, Vereeniging (South Africa). History, Industralization. South Africa. Vereeniging