The day an anti-pass protest became a bloodbath that rocked the world
Sharpeville is one of the oldest townships in Southern Gauteng’s Vaal Triangle. This weekend it is exactly 55 years since the name of this small place reverberated around the world.
On 21 March 1960 the police shot and killed 69 people because they stood up for their human rights. Tim Knight was working on a Johannesburg-based weekly newspaper at the time.The legendary Peter Magubane was a young courageous photographer who captured the funeral image that shocked the world.
I’m a twenty-two year-old reporter on the Sunday Express, Johannesburg, when police slaughter sixty-nine unarmed black protesters at Sharpeville.
And South Africa changes forever.
The funeral for the Sharpeville sixty-nine is scheduled for a few days after the massacre. The paranoid apartheid government, of course, wants no public record of it.
So no reporters.
Police and soldiers cordon off the entire area with barbed wire, armoured cars and an iron curtain of guns.
But Sharpeville is a huge international story. The funeral must be covered.
ANC friends who know the area offer to smuggle Sunday Express chief photographer James Soullier and me by a back ravine through police lines.
We meet our guides very early on the morning. It’s close to noon by the time we get around the men with the uniforms and the guns and get to the funeral.
The picture haunts me to this day. A line of open graves cut out of the red clay stretches as far as I can see. Next to each grave lies an identical wooden coffin.
An enormous crowd of black mourners weeps, sings hymns, chants black power slogans.
James and I seem to be the only whites in this very black, very angry world.
We’re certainly the only white journalists.
Neither of us have any illusions about what can happen. The crowd has every reason to turn on us — take revenge for the sixty-nine Sharpeville murders and the sheer, bloody, racist brutality of this white-supremacist state.
No-one will ever know who slashes the first panga or smashes the last knobkerrie.
No-one will ever know. And anyway, in the long run it simply won’t matter.
But instead of violence, we’re welcomed as honoured guests and given an unofficial bodyguard — just in case. But no bodyguard is needed.
I interview people and James takes his pictures. No problem. No one even curses us.
And it’s possible that our story in the Sunday Express about the Sharpeville funeral helps — in its own, very small way — to eventually end the evil that was apartheid.
It’s three years later on a hell-hot night in Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi), capital of the Congo’s breakaway province, Katanga.
I’m foreign correspondent for United Press International. Outside my apartment, United Nations and Congolese troops patrol the streets.
The last Congo war has ended and the next hasn’t started yet.
Occasional gunshots shatter the night. In this neighbourhood, we ignore shooting. Anyway, there’s nowhere to run to.
A Katangese friend arrives at my door with two very nervous, very tired white men. I recognise them immediately from newspaper photographs.
They’re the world’s two most famous wanted men — Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe.
Until recently, they’re senior advisers with the banned ANC and its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).
They’re the men who secretly rent Liliesleaf, a farm near Johannesburg, as a base for MK strategy sessions. It’s Liliesleaf where Nelson Mandela poses as a farm labourer to hide from police while plotting to bring down the state.
When police raid the farm they capture nineteen top ANC leaders. Soon after, Wolpe is arrested too. He ends up in the notorious Marshall Square prison in Johannesburg. Goldreich is already there.
The two men are charged with treason and face possible death sentences. But instead of waiting for trial, they bribe their way out of Marshall Square and disappear.
The apartheid government is humiliated. It posts a huge reward for their capture. Wherever they are.
This night, every bounty hunter in the world wants to catch Godlreich and Wolpe, sell them back to the South African government, and collect the reward.
And every journalist in the world is looking for them, wants to write their story.
I invite them in. My wife Helen opens cold beers and we talk late into the evening.
We talk of Mandela who sits in jail facing a death sentence. We talk of the horrors of apartheid, of increasing South African police brutality.
Goldreich explains why the police massacre of sixty-nine unarmed protesters at Sharpeville is the final reason the ANC — frustrated that all lawful means of ending apartheid are exhausted — reluctantly picks up the gun.
And it’s Sharpeville that persuades him, a very respectable, wealthy white artist, to join Mandela and Umkhonto we Sizwe to fight violence with violence.
I mention shyly that I’m the only white reporter able to get through police lines to report on the Sharpeville funeral.
I recall how safe I feel among the crowd of angry, chanting, black mourners.
How protective and generous they are towards me, in spite of my colour.
How humble that makes me feel. And how deeply that generosity still affects me.
Neither Goldreich nor Wolpe are even slightly surprised. That’s how Africans treat guests.
When Goldreich and Wolpe are finally collected by the British consul around midnight, I feel honoured by the visit — if only for an accidental evening — by two extraordinarily brave and honourable men.
The whole world is looking for them. And here they are, sitting in my apartment in Elisabethville, drinking my beer.
Even so, I can’t write the story. Not until they’re out of Africa and safe from South African agents and the hungry legions of bounty hunters.
It’s nearly a week before Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe surface safely in London.
By that time, sadly, my world scoop for United Press International is nothing more than an interesting footnote to The Struggle.
In the many years since all that happened, I’ve covered thousands of stories in a dozen countries.
But nothing can compare with that funeral fifty-five years ago — the single most significant, most important, event I’ve ever reported.
That’s because the Sharpeville massacre and funeral were the beginning of the end of a fascist, racist government.
And the start of a new non-racial, democratic South Africa.
Parts of this column are adapted from previous reports by Tim Knight on Sharpeville and the Congo wars.
Knight is a Cape Town-based Emmy and Sigma Delta Chi-winning journalist and communications coach. He’s author of Storytelling and the Anima Factor, now in its second edition, and can be reached at www.TimKnight.org.
Peter Magubane has won many awards in his lifetime including the Order for Meritorious Service Class II from President Nelson Mandela.BACK TO TOP