On 21 March 1960, 69 protesters were fatally shot by police in Sharpeville, between Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging in Gauteng. Together with a large crowd, the victims had been protesting against the pass laws. Many of them were shot in the back as they were fleeing police.


The Sharpeville massacre, as it is called now, sparked outrage among the South African anti-apartheid community and among the international community. Protests and demonstrations were held around South Africa and the world. The UN officially condemned South Africa, passing Resolution 134 on 1 April 1960. The resolution condemned the apartheid government’s policies and called upon the government to initiate measures that would bring about racial equality.

Dr Hendrik Verwoerd’s government ignored the UN and called a state of emergency within South Africa, which included banning the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). Historians agree that Sharpeville marks a turning point in resistance to apartheid. It was here, they say, that armed resistance replaced passive resistance, and the ANC’s Umkhonto we Sizwe and the PAC’s Poqo were formed shortly after the massacre.

The role that Sharpeville played in the struggle is recognised every year on 21 March when we celebrate Human Rights Day. As we remember Sharpeville’s importance in our struggle history, here are some important events in South Africa’s history as a democracy.

27 April 1994
South Africa’s first democratic general election, in which people of all races could vote, was held over a three-day period beginning on 27 April 1994. A total of 19 726 579 votes were counted (193 081 were spoilt or invalid).

The ANC won 62.65% of the vote while the National Party and the Inkatha Freedom Party won 20.39% and 10.54% of the vote respectively.

27 April is marked every year by the celebration of Freedom Day.

10 May 1994
Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the president of South Africa in an inauguration ceremony at the Union Buildings on 10 April, 20 years ago.

At the ceremony, which was attended by dignitaries from more than 140 countries, Mandela pledged his determination to follow the process of reconciliation in South Africa.

In his inauguration speech, Mandela said that, “We saw our country tear itself apart in terrible conflict … The time for healing wounds has come … Never, never again will this beautiful land experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.”

The new South African government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1995 in terms of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, Act number 34 of 1995.

The TRC’s three committees – the Human Rights Violation Committee, the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee, and the Amnesty Committee – bore witness to crimes against humanity committed during apartheid.

People who had committed these crimes could be granted amnesty by the TRC if they fully disclosed their actions and if their actions had been politically motivated.

The TRC has been contrasted to methods of “de-Nazifying” Germany after the second world war, although there are different opinions of how effective the approach was.

10 December 1996
South Africa’s new constitution was drawn up by the parliament elected in the 1994 elections and was signed into law at the site of the Sharpeville massacre. The constitution came into effect on 4 February 1997.

2 June 1999
South Africa’s second democratic election was held on 2 June 1999. The ANC won the election, coming within one seat of a two-thirds majority. Support for the New National Party (which had replaced the National Party) declined by more than 50%. The Democratic Party (now known as the DA) became the main opposition party.

Thabo Mbeki was sworn in as South Africa’s new president two weeks later.

16 June 1999
On Youth Day in 1999, Thabo Mbeki was sworn in as president. Mbeki has been praised for growing the South African economy and for diplomatic mediation in African countries such as Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ivory Coast, but has been criticised for not speaking out on issues in Zimbabwe and for his stance on the Aids endemic.

14 April 2004
The new South Africa’s third general election was held on 14 April 2004. The ANC increased its majority, winning 69.7% of votes. Only 56% of South Africans who were eligible to vote participated in these elections.

The election marked the beginning of Mbeki’s second term in office.

24 September 2008
A few months before the 2009 general election, Mbeki resigned as president of South Africa. Mbeki was recalled by the ANC’s national executive committee after Judge Nicholson ruled that Mbeki’s government had interfered in the National Prosecuting Authority, most notably in the corruption case against Jacob Zuma.

Although the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned Judge Nicholson’s ruling, Mbeki’s resignation stood. He was replaced by Kgalema Motlanthe, who took office on 25 September 2008.

22 April 2009
South Africa held its fourth democratic election in April 2009. In February that year, the North Gauteng High Court had ruled that South African citizens living abroad would be eligible to vote. This ruling was confirmed by the Constitutional Court in March.

Support for the ANC decreased slightly, with the ruling party winning 65.90% of the vote. About seven million South Africans who were registered to vote abstained from voting, while about five million registered voters did not vote in the election.

The ANC won eight of South Africa’s nine provinces, with the DA winning the Western Cape.

9 May 2009
Jacob Zuma was sworn in as South Africa’s new president on 9 May 2009. He had been ANC president since 2007. Zuma was once again voted ANC president in 2012.

Zuma has been criticised for his legal battles, his relationship with Schabir Shaik, alleged abuse and intimidation by his bodyguards and, most recently, for the billions of rands spent on his state-funded Nkandla residence.

5 December 2013
Just before 21:00 on 5 December last year, Tata Mandela died in his home in Houghton, Johannesburg.

Following his death, South Africa observed a ten-day mourning period, which included an official memorial service at FNB Stadium on 10 December. The mourning period culminated in a state funeral on 15 December in Qunu, Eastern Cape.

Messages of condolences were received from around the world. Many South Africans paid tribute to Mandela outside his Houghton home and at his statue in Nelson Mandela square in Sandton.

Illustration: Johann van Tonder

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