From the March 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
On March 21 1960, at the African township of Sharpeville in the Transvaal, police fired on a large crowd of Africans who, in response to a call by the Pan Africanist Congress, had gathered to demonstrate against the Pass Laws. Sixty-seven people were killed and a further one hundred and eighty-six injured. Three more Africans were killed while attending a similar demonstration at Langa location, near Cape Town.
The PAC had announced on February 14 that it would launch a non-violent campaign against the carrying of pass-books, which they described as “the symbol of white domination”. The plan was that all African men should leave their pass-books at home, march to the nearest police-station and give themselves up. If brought before a magistrate they would make no plea, nor would they accept bail. It was further stated that the campaign would not be called off until the Pass Laws had been abolished and various other conditions had been met, including the promise of a minimum wage of £8.6.8. (£8.34) a week and no victimisation.
Predictably, police witnesses, in their official testimony, denied responsibility for the slaughter at Sharpeville. The familiar excuses were offered and accepted: shots had come from the crowd; sticks and stones had been used; the police were in danger of being overwhelmed. It is revealing to note however, that the senior district surgeon of Johannesburg, Dr Jack Friedman, at the post mortem examination he had conducted on fifty-two of the Africans killed, recorded that 70 per cent of the bullets had entered from the back. Of the police, only twelve were injured, none of them seriously.
In the debates which took place in the House of Assembly on the Sharpeville massacre every effort was made by the government spokesmen to whitewash the actions of the police and to blacken the motives and behaviour of the Africans.
Even in a police state as tightly controlled as South Africa's, any attempt to cover up an event as horrific as Sharpeville was bound to fail. News of the massacre made the headlines all over the world. The event was variously interpreted, some commentators going so far as to assert that revolution was just around the corner. Although there were — and are — many apologists for the behaviour of the South African authorities support for racism and police brutality isn’t confined to South Africa — there was a widespread feeling of shock and horror. Even many in the business world contrived to put up a passable imitation of outrage—as well they might; for Sharpeville promised to be much more than the mere disciplining of a handful of recalcitrant blacks. At stake was the continued ability of the South African ruling class to divide, rule and profit from one of the great cheap-labour markets of the world.
South Africa is effectively a slave state. Its mainly black workforce is divided along racial lines. In order to maintain control over their enormous reservoir of dirt-cheap labour the South African ruling class has underpinned its position by ensuring, through the granting of extensive and exclusive privileges, that white workers are persuaded that they have no interest in identifying with their dark-skinned fellows. For example: where black workers are deliberately under-educated, or not educated at all, white workers are granted free access to all levels of state education; subject, of course, to the competitive rigours of the examination system. White workers may freely organise in trade unions which black workers may not join. Blacks, under the policy of apartheid (separate development) have no permanent right of settlement outside specially designated areas the so-called ‘Bantustans’ or ‘Homelands’. Whites are free to live where they please. A corollary of all these circumstances is the massive job discrimination which exists throughout South Africa.
It is not as if the South African capitalists have any greater love or respect for their white employees than they have for their black or brown ones, despite the fact that all white South Africans are encouraged to believe that the blacks, whom they slightingly refer to as the ‘Bantu’, are essentially less than human. (Can this account for the behaviour of one Dominee J. J. du Toit, of the Nederduitse Hervormde Kerk reported in the Guardian, 17.1.80—who refused to conduct the funeral service, in Germiston, of a white employer because two truckloads of his former black employees turned up to help bury him?) It is rather that they exploit an opportunity to capitalise on the prejudice, jealousy and greed which they have themselves assiduously fomented among the working class as a whole. It is a heightened illustration of what Karl Marx correctly identified as a ‘false consciousness of class’;—heightened because it includes the particularly vicious concept of racial superiority. (Of course, it repays capitalists everywhere, and not only in South Africa, to play off one group of workers against another using wage levels, religion, colour, language or whatever, in order to do so. The method may be examined even closer at hand among our own coloured brothers and sisters whose isolation currently serves the miserable purposes of such as the National Front; or Enoch Powell; or Thatcher).
Sharpeville, then, represented a threat — not to the capitalist system as it was—and is—operating throughout the world, but to the peculiar and highly lucrative manner in which it was operating in South Africa. A police massacre of unarmed, protesting, black near-slaves is hardly calculated to bathe either South African or international capitalism in a very flattering light. In short, the whole affair was acutely embarrassing. But that was not all. If world opinion were allowed to get out of hand then it could begin to endanger the continued amassing of the huge profits hitherto enjoyed by some of the world’s largest corporations and banking interests.
They need not have worried. An initial tactical suspension of the Pass Laws by the South African Government led to even greater repression, with the—by then—re-introduced Pass Laws being more forcibly upheld than before. The black Africans’ right of assembly was withdrawn and the police were armed with even more punitive powers. (Following mass protests and strikes the police had resorted to indiscriminate brutality on a scale and of a type which shocked even many white bystanders.) A state of emergency was declared. The leaders of the Pan Africanist Congress and the African National Congress were gaoled and their organisations proscribed, mass arrests were made of opponents of Government racial policy. South African and world capitalism rode out the storm.
As time passed Sharpeville slipped into the shadows and for the capitalists it was business as usual. Who today can truthfully say that the seventy black workers who died at the hands of South Africa’s police thugs brought about any noticeable change of policy in that country except for a determination on the part of the white ruling class to tighten the screws of oppression? Far more than that seventy have died since: hangings, shootings, mysterious ‘suicides’ by ‘suspects’ who ‘leaped’ from high windows during police ‘interrogation’. Some, like Steve Biko, were kicked and beaten to death for no better reason than that they were black and politically articulate. Then there were the Soweto riots, resulting in yet another crop of police killings. Hundreds languish in prisons such as Robben Island, convicted on trumped- up charges which the South African judiciary and police, lackeys that they are, have ensured need no proper substantiation.
What message, then, should workers draw from these and other similar happenings around the world? Firstly: it cannot be emphasised strongly enough that, appalling though such disasters as Sharpeville are, they are nevertheless manifestations of a condition which all the world’s workers share: the capitalistic exploitation of their labour power in exchange for wages. If this can be achieved voluntarily then so much the better. If it cannot then our masters can resort to the methods described above. This would be true even were the present white regime in South Africa to be overthrown and replaced by black rule: black governments throughout Africa bear witness to the validity of this assertion. Doubters will shortly be in a position to test it anew against events taking place in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia on South Africa’s borders. At the time of writing, that country—ostensibly preparing for elections—is demonstrating all the signs of a plunge into a civil war even more ferocious than it has suffered hitherto. What is certain is that whoever emerges ‘victorious’ will proceed with as much dispatch as possible to take over capitalism where the last lot left off. (In reassuring Rhodesian whites of their future position, the so called Marxist Robert Mugabe was reported by the BBC on 27 January as saying that if his party came to power they would have to inherit a capitalist economy and any reforms would be built on that basis.) It will make not a scrap of difference whether the troops who hold the ring are South African, British, Cuban, or whatever: black and white workers alike will merely find themselves saddled with a new set of exploiters. The demands that are made of them will not have changed. And it is certain that unless and until workers are prepared to understand this then any protest they may make can in the end be no more effective than that which led to the bloodletting at Sharpeville.