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IB DP History Study Notes

4.2.5 Sharpeville Massacre and Armed Struggle

The Sharpeville massacre and the decision of the anti-apartheid movement to adopt armed resistance significantly influenced the trajectory of South Africa's journey towards emancipation.

The Sharpeville Massacre

Events leading to the massacre

  • Origins of Resistance: From the inception of apartheid in 1948, black South Africans consistently resisted its draconian regulations. The pass laws, requiring non-whites to carry documents justifying their presence in certain areas, became especially reviled.
  • PAC's Campaign: The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), under the leadership of Robert Sobukwe, sought a decisive challenge against the pass laws. Their strategy was mass surrender to police without passes, effectively overwhelming the prison system.
  • Day of the Protest: On 21 March 1960, large crowds assembled at various police stations. Sharpeville's congregation was one of the largest, with estimates suggesting between 5,000 to 7,000 protesters.

The massacre itself

  • Initial Confrontation: As the crowds grew, police barriers were set up. The atmosphere, though initially peaceful, grew tense.
  • Firing Begins: A scuffle near the police lines resulted in the officers panicking and firing directly into the crowd.
  • Casualties: 69 individuals, including women and children, were killed, with many shot in the back, implying they were fleeing. Another 180 sustained injuries.

Causes of the massacre

  • Systemic Racism: The inherent racism of the apartheid system and the government's dogged determination to maintain white supremacy played a critical role.
  • Police Unpreparedness: Poor training and a lack of discipline meant police were not equipped to handle large, peaceful protests.
  • The Challenge: The PAC's proactive challenge to the pass laws was perceived as a direct affront to the government's authority.

Consequences of the massacre

  • Domestic Uproar: The incident sparked nationwide outrage. Many realised that peaceful protests might not be enough to dismantle apartheid.
  • State of Emergency: The government reacted by declaring a state of emergency on 30 March, arresting more than 18,000 suspected dissidents.
  • Global Reaction: Sharpeville propelled apartheid into global consciousness. Nations condemned the violence, leading to South Africa's increased international isolation. The UN's Resolution 134 became a testament to this condemnation.

Decision to Adopt Armed Struggle


  • Ban on Political Movements: The South African government clamped down hard after Sharpeville, banning both the ANC and PAC. This left anti-apartheid leaders with difficult choices regarding the path forward.
  • Non-violence Inadequate: It became increasingly clear that non-violent resistance, though morally commendable, wasn't bringing about tangible change.

Formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK)

  • Genesis: With peaceful avenues appearing ineffective, the ANC and SACP inaugurated Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in 1961. Nelson Mandela cited the brutality of state actions, like Sharpeville, as reasons for this move towards an armed wing.
  • Philosophy: MK emphasised sabotage over direct confrontation to minimise civilian casualties. They targeted government facilities symbolising apartheid oppression.
  • Foreign Support: Recognising the need for specialised training, MK operatives travelled abroad, notably to the Soviet Union and Algeria, to hone their guerrilla warfare skills.

Manifestations of armed struggle

  • Sabotage Campaigns: These involved attacks on government installations, infrastructure, and communication systems. The idea was to disrupt without causing death.
  • Shift to Guerrilla Warfare: Over time, elements within MK pushed for guerrilla tactics, implying direct confrontations with state forces.
  • Recruitment and Training: MK set up training camps outside South Africa, especially in neighbouring countries, and in collaboration with other liberation movements.

Impact on the anti-apartheid movement

  • Strategic Divisions: The move towards armed struggle was controversial. It divided members, with some fearing it would legitimise government crackdowns.
  • Galvanising Youth: Younger generations, frustrated with the pace of change, were increasingly drawn to MK's proactive approach.
  • International Solidarity: While some global entities hesitated to back an armed movement, others, especially socialist nations, offered moral and material support.

Impact on South African politics

  • State's Justification: The apartheid regime used MK's actions to justify further repressive measures, branding anti-apartheid activists as terrorists.
  • Mobilisation of Resources: The state ramped up its military and intelligence capabilities to counter MK operations.
  • Political Dialogues: Despite the hostilities, backchannel dialogues persisted, albeit fruitlessly, during these years. The armed struggle, for many in power, highlighted the unsustainability of apartheid, gradually pushing them towards negotiations.

In embracing armed resistance, the anti-apartheid movement acknowledged the enormity of their challenge. While fraught with moral and tactical dilemmas, the move towards militancy, catalysed by events like Sharpeville, showcased the profound determination to upend decades of racial oppression.


Yes, the decision to form Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and to adopt an armed struggle was not universally supported within the ANC. Some members believed that violence would tarnish the moral high ground the movement held and could provide the apartheid government with an excuse to intensify its crackdown on opposition. Others argued that the adoption of armed resistance might alienate international allies, particularly those in Western democracies. However, proponents of the armed struggle believed that, in the face of the regime's brutality and intransigence, a turn to militancy was the only viable option left to effect meaningful change.

The Sharpeville Massacre underscored the differences in approach between the ANC and PAC. While both parties opposed apartheid, the PAC's more radical approach was showcased by its organisation of the Sharpeville protest. After the massacre, the ANC, which had previously been committed to non-violent resistance, began to reevaluate its strategies, culminating in the formation of its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). The PAC also formed its military wing, Poqo. The events highlighted the urgency of the situation and pushed both parties towards militancy, though tactical and ideological differences persisted between them, creating competition and tensions in the larger struggle against apartheid.

The international media played a pivotal role in highlighting the atrocities of the Sharpeville Massacre. Photographs and reports quickly spread around the globe, shocking audiences and putting the brutality of apartheid squarely in the global spotlight. Major news outlets, especially those in Western democracies, condemned the actions of the South African police, which escalated international pressure on the apartheid regime. The extensive media coverage also fostered greater international solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement, eventually contributing to various international sanctions and boycotts against South Africa. In essence, the media's role was instrumental in transforming Sharpeville from a domestic tragedy into an international cause célèbre.

Absolutely. The Sharpeville Massacre and the subsequent turn to armed struggle elicited significant reactions from other African nations. Many were deeply sympathetic to the South African anti-apartheid cause, given their own experiences with colonialism and struggles for independence. Countries like Tanzania, Zambia, and Botswana provided refuge to ANC and PAC members fleeing repression. Training camps were set up in some of these nations, allowing MK and other factions to train their cadres. Furthermore, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was vociferous in its condemnation of apartheid, offering moral, diplomatic, and at times, material support to South Africa's liberation movements.

The pass laws were one of the most notorious and hated aspects of the apartheid system. They symbolised the daily humiliations that black South Africans faced under apartheid, requiring them to carry documents (or "passes") that controlled their movement within the country. The PAC decided to challenge these laws because they felt that a direct action against such a ubiquitous symbol of apartheid oppression would rally widespread support and would be a tangible point of contestation against the apartheid regime. By seeking to inundate the system through mass arrests, the PAC aimed to expose the impracticality and injustice of the pass laws to the international community and galvanise domestic resistance.

Practice Questions

Analyse the impact of the Sharpeville Massacre on the strategies adopted by the anti-apartheid movement.

The Sharpeville Massacre had profound implications on the tactics of the anti-apartheid movement. The event highlighted the extreme measures the apartheid government was willing to employ to suppress dissent. Consequently, the belief that peaceful protests could dismantle the apartheid structure weakened. This tragic event catalysed the shift towards armed resistance, notably with the formation of the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). The massacre thus not only evoked international condemnation but also internally reshaped the course of resistance against apartheid, pushing it into a more radical, confrontational trajectory.

Evaluate the effectiveness of the decision to adopt armed struggle in advancing the objectives of the anti-apartheid movement.

The decision to adopt armed struggle was a double-edged sword for the anti-apartheid movement. On one hand, it added a new dimension of pressure on the apartheid regime, compelling it to divert resources to countering the MK’s operations. This decision also galvanised the youth and showcased the movement's determination to international audiences, attracting further global support. On the other hand, the adoption of violence allowed the apartheid regime to brand the movement as "terrorist", legitimising its repressive actions and potentially alienating would-be supporters. Overall, while the armed struggle did not single-handedly dismantle apartheid, it undeniably escalated the pressure on the oppressive system.

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Written by: Maddie
Oxford University - BA History

Maddie, an Oxford history graduate, is experienced in creating dynamic educational resources, blending her historical knowledge with her tutoring experience to inspire and educate students.

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