Massacre heralds start of South Africa’s alienation from the Commonwealth

Stuart Mole

As apartheid began to take hold of South Africa during the 1950s, other African countries were moving in the opposite direction with their newly gained independence. But the country’s unrepentant attitude to a brutal massacre in 1960 was the turning point that saw other Commonwealth countries feel compelled to break away from the usual protocol of not discussing other nations’ internal affairs 

The large African crowd that gathered outside the police station in the Transvaal township of Sharpeville was peaceful, unarmed and expectant. Having come together to protest against the pass laws, a rumour had spread that an important person – possibly the Commissioner for Bantu Affairs – was due to make an announcement at 14:00. 

Throughout the morning, the small detachment at the police station had been steadily reinforced. This had included the arrival of four Saracen armoured cars, nosing their way through the crowd. Some arrests were made without particular incident. When Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar lined up his now near 300 men and instructed them to load their weapons, many assumed this to be a ceremonial welcome for the expected VIP. Even the shout of ‘Skiet!‘ and the sound of gunfire did not alarm some, who assumed blanks were being used. Only as bullets ripped through the crowd did men, women and children turn in panic and run for their lives. The massacre of Sharpeville had begun. 

When the firing finished – after many of the police, some armed with Sten guns, had reloaded or changed to fresh weapons – 67 Africans lay dead and 186 were wounded. Of the fatalities, 70 per cent had been shot in the back. It was Monday 21 March 1960, and the day was not yet over. 

At the subsequent Commission of Inquiry into the shootings, Colonel Pienaar was asked why he did not give the crowd any kind of warning, or call upon them to disperse. He replied that “time did not permit that”. Asked if he could have asked a deputy to make an announcement on his behalf, he responded: “I could have, I did not think of that.” At the end of his cross-examination, Pienaar was asked if he had learned any useful lesson from the evidence of Sharpeville. “Well,” he replied, “we may get better equipment.” 

The shots at Sharpeville resounded across a horrified world. An unrepentant South African government responded by declaring a state of emergency and issuing temporary regulations. These allowed for the banning of processions and gatherings and permitted indefinite detention without charge. Around 1,900 people of all races were immediately arrested and the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) – which had organised the Sharpeville protest – were banned. As the country slipped further into darkness, the first international organisation to force South Africa from its membership had begun the necessary processes. A year later, South Africa would no longer be a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. 

It had all looked very different in 1945. The reputation of South Africa’s war leader and Prime Minister, Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts, could not have been higher. He had confounded his nationalist opponents and, on 6 September 1939, had brought South Africa into the war against Germany. After the shock of the fall of Tobruk – with the surrender of a substantial proportion of South Africa’s fighting strength – he had steadied the recovery and helped deliver the great Allied victory at El-Alamein. He had gained a resounding electoral victory in South Africa in 1943, winning a large parliamentary majority. South African divisions, as part of the Eighth Army, had re-entered Tobruk and avenged their earlier defeat. ‘The boys’ had fought their way up through Italy until finally reaching the Alps and Germany’s soft underbelly. 

At the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference of 1944, under the leadership of Winston Churchill, the prime ministers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa had seen “the sure presage of our future victory”. The leaders of the imperial armies declared: “It is our aim that, when the storm and passion of war have passed away, all countries now overrun by the enemy shall be free to decide for themselves their future form of democratic government.” 

They looked forward to “a world organisation to maintain peace and security… endowed with the necessary power and authority to prevent aggression and violence”. As final victory was achieved, Smuts led the South African delegation to San Francisco and the birth of the United Nations, having drafted the preamble to the UN Charter. But by 1948, there were fresh challenges to the dominance of Smuts’ English-speaking United Party (UP). The Afrikaner nationalists, under the leadership of Dr Malan, won a surprising victory in the general election of that year, winning a majority of seats, though not a majority of votes. 

The UP had, in practice, supported racial segregation and the leadership of the white race. But it had also encompassed the ‘Cape Liberal’ position that saw the gradual enfranchisement of other races, including black Africans, as they became ‘civilised’. There was already a coloured voter roll and limited Bantu representation. 

The incoming nationalist government began the vigorous introduction of the policy of ‘separate development’ – apartheid. Steadily, the modest advances of previous years were reversed. Non-whites were disenfranchised, with the abolition of the coloured roll. The Group Areas Act enforced geographic separation, reserving the best land for whites and restricting the movement of blacks through the pass laws. Mixed marriages and sexual relations across the races were forbidden and a system of racial classification established. 

Eventually, segregation was carried into all walks of life, including education and employment (though some of the churches resisted the division of their congregations and ministries). 

The ANC and the Communist Party provided the main resistance outside the white parliament. There was the Defiance Campaign, boycotts and strikes and, in 1955, the ANC adopted the Freedom Charter. 

In other parts of the continent, Africans were gaining their liberty from colonial rule. Ghana became independent in 1957 and Nigeria in 1960. This was changing the character of the Commonwealth. Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister, lamented a less exclusive, club-like Commonwealth. But, despite Britain’s huge commercial interests in South Africa, and its strategic position in containing global communism, he recognised the necessity of change. In January 1960 he addressed an unreceptive South African parliament and warned that “the winds of change” were blowing through the continent. 

Then came Sharpeville. A few months later, at the beginning of May 1960, Commonwealth Prime Ministers met in London. The Federation of Malaya, led by the father of its independence, Tunku Abdul Rahman, was the newest member to join the Commonwealth. South Africa was represented by its Minister of External affairs, E. H. Louw. He gave notice that South Africa would shortly be holding a referendum on the question of the union becoming a republic. He was reminded that, if South Africa voted to become a republic and wished to remain in the Commonwealth, it would have to follow the usual procedure and re-apply for membership. It was not long before anger over Sharpeville bubbled over, with Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, John Diefenbaker of Canada and Jawaharlal Nehru among South Africa’s fiercest critics. 

The communiqué recorded: “While reaffirming the traditional practice that Commonwealth conferences do not discuss the internal affairs of member countries, ministers availed themselves of Mr Louw’s presence in London to have informal discussions with him about the racial situation in South Africa… Mr Louw gave information and answered questions… and the other ministers conveyed to him their views on the South African problem.” The statement concluded: “The ministers emphasised that the Commonwealth itself is a multiracial association and expressed the need to ensure good relations between all member states and peoples of the Commonwealth.” 

At the next Prime Ministers’ meeting, barely a year after Sharpeville, Hendrik Verwoerd, South Africa’s Prime Minister, informed his colleagues of the results of the referendum. With 52 per cent of the vote, the white electorate had voted for republican status. He then told the meeting that it was South Africa’s desire to remain within the Commonwealth as a republic. 

Once again, ministers rounded on South Africa’s apartheid policy. This time, the principal critics were joined by Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister of newly independent Nigeria, as well as Archbishop Makarios, President of Cyprus. In vain did the British Prime Minister – and Robert Menzies of Australia – attempt to stem the tide. South Africa’s position had become untenable and a bruised and angry Verwoerd withdrew the country’s application for membership. He declared: “No self-respecting member… could, in the view of what is being suggested and the degree of interference shown in what are South Africa’s domestic affairs, be expected to wish to retain membership in what is now becoming a pressure group.” He added that he was “amazed and shocked by the spirit of hostility… even of vindictiveness shown towards South Africa”. He complained: “The character of the Commonwealth has apparently changed completely during the last year.” 

Macmillan had hoped for a compromise solution that would have kept South Africa within the Commonwealth, but also recorded the detestation by all the other prime ministers of South Africa’s racial policies. He conceded that this might fatally undermine the Nigerian Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and would not hold off an eventual motion to expel South Africa. Later that day, Lord Home wrote to Harold Macmillan, praising him for the “gallant way you have tried to save the day”. It was, said Lord Home, a very sad day but he conceded that “the only alternative was the breakaway of all the Asian and African members”, adding: “That could not be faced.” 

The Commonwealth thus became the first international organisation to drive South Africa from its membership. It was not to return to the fold for another 34 years – as a free and democratic nation. The Commonwealth’s long struggle against apartheid had begun in earnest. 


About the author:

Stuart Mole is the senior research fellow of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and former Director of the Secretary-General's Office in the Commonwealth Secretariat


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