Sharpeville: An Apartheid Massacre and Its Consequences
Oxford University Press, 2011
256 pp., $35.00
Fifty years later and long after the fall of the apartheid regime, few of the victims of South Africa's Sharpeville massacre feel the loss was worthwhile. When police emptied 1,344 rounds of ammunition into a crowd on March 21, 1960, a peripheral protest movement was jump-started into a global cause that would continue for three decades.
But for those immediately affected, there was no redemptive end—just unending loss. "Decisive as it was in their lives," writes Tom Lodge in his new history of the massacre and its aftermath, "few of these witnesses can find consolation from their own participation in a confrontation that changed history." If Sharpeville's story had a happy ending, it was only for other people to enjoy.
Lodge's is a fresh approach to a well-known event. Rather than attempting to explain the massacre, he provides a short but precise account of the shootings, focusing instead on Sharpeville's impact on protest politics in South Africa and beyond. Indeed, he dedicates as much space to a simultaneous protest in Cape Town—one that fizzled without bloodshed—as to the events in Sharpeville, an African township in the industrial belt south of Johannesburg.
The comparison with Cape Town is instructive. In that city, protests unfolded under the leadership of a college student named Philip Kgosana. Despite his youth and diminutive stature, Kgosana, in negotiations with police, was able to exert control over the crowd massed behind him. In Sharpeville, by contrast, terrified police could not—or did not—identify a leader with whom they might negotiate.
While Africans remember the Sharpeville crowd as cheerful and good-natured, (white) police experienced the chanting crowd as menacing. Surely cross-cultural confusion accounts for some of the problem, as body language and public presence are anything but devoid of highly contextual meaning.
Lodge's insight, as he considers the protests in Sharpeville and Cape Town in the context of broader scholarship on non-violent protest, is that fear trumped everything else, accounting for both protests' short-term failure to change South African hearts and minds.
Successful non-violent protest is essentially a moral gamble: it works best, Lodge writes, "in a setting in which a civilian population that normally supports authority becomes disaffected by brutal excesses." But in the case of Sharpeville, that disaffection did not mature: it was short-circuited by fear. Lodge points to sharp increases in firearm purchases in the massacre's aftermath: moral introspection is unlikely to unfold in a climate where the perpetrator's constituency is terrified of the victim.
Genuine moral change would take decades—and the support of a global movement for sanctions and divestment—to develop. This is where Lodge's narrative ventures onto thin ice. Although the international protest movements probably played a major role in persuading South African President F. W. de Klerk (in 1990) to begin unwinding apartheid, Lodge has a hard time demonstrating the connection to a shooting three decades earlier.
Anti-apartheid movements were already in place in England in the late 1950s, but did not attract much attention until Sharpeville. Sixteen years after Sharpeville came the Soweto uprising—which successfully infused the global movements with new blood, especially among African American churches and student groups in the United States. Lodge, however, dedicates little space to Soweto, preferring to follow the internal dynamics of the Pan-Africanist Congress and its rival, the African National Congress.
A final note: Dozens of typographical errors mar this book, distracting the reader. Tom Lodge's important contribution deserved better editing.
Paul Grant is pursuing a PhD in history at the University of Wisconsin.
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