Black South Africans resist pass laws and mount general strike (Sharpeville Massacre), 1960


Total abolition of pass laws.

Time period

21 March, 1960 to September, 1960


South Africa

Location City/State/Province

Jump to case narrative


Robert Sobukwe (PAC)and Chief Albert Luthuli.
African National Congress (ANC), Pan Africanist Congress (PAC)


African Students Association (ASA), African Students Association (ASA), African Students Union of South Africa (ASUSA)., African Students Union of South Africa (ASUSA).

External allies

Not Known

Involvement of social elites

Not Known


The British Government

Nonviolent responses of opponent

Not known

Campaigner violence

Some accounts of the Sharpeville Massacre stated that a police officer was shoved, but taking into account the size of the crowd it is difficult to tell whether this was an accident or not.

Repressive Violence

The police opened fire on the protesters during the first protest. Sixty-nine people were killed and another 180 were wounded in what came to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre.


Human Rights
National-Ethnic Identity



Group characterization

Black South Africans

Groups in 1st Segment

African Students Association
African Students Union of South Africa

Segment Length

Approximately 1 month

Success in achieving specific demands/goals

0 out of 6 points


1 out of 1 points


3 out of 3 points

Total points

4 out of 10 points

Notes on outcomes

Beyond this campaign the PAC and ANC continued to exist, but remained illegal, and most of their leaders were in prison. The pass laws remained until the fall of South African apartheid in 1986.

Database Narrative

In 1960 South Africa was under the rule of the National Party, which was imposing harsh, demeaning laws on black South Africans. The party was made up entirely of white people, mostly the descendants of Dutch immigrants. The party was devoted to apartheid and white supremacy, maintained through a collection of policies, including the pass laws. 

Pass laws required all black Africans to carry a small booklet containing personal information and a history of employment. If police caught a black African in public without one of these booklets, the police could arrest and fine the individual. 

Black Africans had made previous attempts to abolish the pass laws, but none had been successful. [See in this database, “South Africans disobey apartheid laws (Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign,) 1952-1953”).] In 1960 the African National Congress (ANC) decided to launch a campaign to rid South Africa of these laws. Soon afterwards, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) announced that they would also work towards this goal. Their plan was to encourage people to go to police stations without their passes, in order to fill the Sharpeville jail with arrested resisters.

On the morning of 21 March 1960, the PAC leaders gathered near the Sharpeville police station and started walking toward it while singing songs about freedom. The police were waiting for them, and at first did not allow the protesters into the station. Around 11:00 am the police started arresting the demonstrators. 

A few hours later 300 police officers and 5,000 protesters had gathered at the scene. Shortly after 1pm the crowd pushed over a police officer, reportedly by accident. One of the younger officers panicked and opened fire on the crowd, and several others followed suit. 

After about two minutes, police had killed sixty-nine people and wounded 180 more. This came to be known as the ‘Sharpeville Massacre.’ 

On 22 March, PAC announced that Robert Sobukwe, the president of the PAC, and 130 other members had been arrested. By 27 March, the police had announced the temporary suspension of pass laws because the jails could not hold any more people. 

On 28 March, the ANC began a stay-at-home protest and strike to call attention to the Sharpeville Massacre. To highlight their opposition to the passes, protesters started publicly burning them in bonfires.

On 30 March, the government declared a State of Emergency. Police arrested over 2,000 people. Around noon that day, 30,000 black South Africans marched into Cape Town and demanded to see the Minister of Justice. The Chief of Security promised to grant them an audience and the crowd dispersed, but there was no meeting. The government also banned the ANC and the PAC, but this did little to lower membership. On 2 April, the New York Times estimated that 70,000 people were involved in these organizations.

On 6 April, the police once again started enforcing the pass laws.  On 4 May, a court sentenced Robert Sobukwe to three years in prison for his involvement in the protests. By 6 May, the total number of people arrested because of the protest had grown to 18,000.  Others involved in the strike, which started on 28 March, had returned to work. 

The State of Emergency was lifted on 31 August, but 10,500 people remained in jails. The campaign of resistance to the pass laws ended in September.

On 5 October, fifty-two percent of white South Africans voted in favour of an Independent Republic that would no longer be a part of the British Commonwealth; this did not change apartheid laws in any way. Shortly after this, the United Nations General Assembly began to pressure the new government to put an end to apartheid. 

Over time, apartheid repression became even worse. The PAC and ANC continued to exist, but remained illegal, and most of their leaders were in prison. Further campaigns were launched, implicitly or explicitly against apartheid. [See in this database: “Durban, South Africa, workers mass strike for a raise in wages, 1973,” and “South African blacks boycott apartheid in Port Elizabeth, 1985-86.”] 

South African apartheid fell in 1986.


"Sharpeville Massacre: 21 March 1960." South African History Online. Published March 2011. Accessed 29 April 2013. <>

"21 March 1960: Scores die in Sharpeville Shoot-out." On This Day. BBC Online. Accessed 19 April 2013. <>

Wiley, David and Kornbluh, Mark Lawrence, Program Directores. "South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid." Michigan State University. Accessed 29 April 2013. <>

"Pass Laws in South Africa" South African History Online. Published July 2009. Accessed 19 April 2013. <>

Additional Notes

In response to the Sharpeville Massacre the ANC also developed a wing devoted to violent resistance called "Spear of the Nation" in English. However, because their first action did not occur until after this campaign they do not appear in this narrative.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy

Hayley Summers, 29/04/2013