For a century and a half, blacks in the Union of South Africa have had to carry passbooks. But it is only in recent years, under the Boer regime of stubborn, stiff-necked Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, that the passbook has become almost a physical shackle.
The pass lists the African's name, birthplace, and tribal affiliation, contains his picture and serial number, has space for a receipt to prove that he has paid his taxes and to list his arrests, and unless it is signed each month by his employer, the African can be herded with the other unemployed into a native reservation.
If an African travels from the countryside to the city, or just across the street for cigarettes, South Africa's ubiquitous, hard-fisted police check his pass. If he stands outside his front door without his pass, the police will not let him walk five feet to get it. He is hauled off to jail, without notice to his employer or family, and fined or imprisoned. Murders go unsolved while the courts are jammed with pass offenders.
For years the Africans hated and endured the system. Then a new and more militant organization called the Pan-African Congress decided to exploit the passbook grievance. It urged Africans all over the Union to descend last week upon local police stationswithout their passbooks, without arms, without violenceand demand to be arrested. In a few spots, the turnout was impressive. At Orlando township in the outskirts of Johannesburg, 20,000 Africans milled around the police station, led by Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, 36, a Methodist-reared university instructor, who heads the Pan-African Congress. Fifteen miles to the south, in Evaton, 70,000 Africans turned out. The nervous police made few arrests of the demonstrators; at Langa, near Cape Town, they opened fire to disperse the Africans, killing three and wounding 25.
At first, everything was relatively quiet, too, at the Sharpeville police station, 28 miles southwest of Johannesburgbut Sharpeville was soon to become a headline name the world over. Twenty police, nervously eying a growing mob of 20,000 Africans demanding to be arrested, barricaded themselves behind a 4-ft. wire-mesh fence surrounding the police station. The crowd's mood was ugly, and 130 police reinforcements, supported by four Saracen armored cars, were rushed in. Sabre jets and Harvard Trainers zoomed within a hundred feet of the ground, buzzing the crowd in an attempt to scatter it. The Africans responded by hurling stones, which rattled harmlessly off the armored cars and into the police compound, stnk-ing three policemen.
Chain Reaction. At i: 20 p.m. the blowup came. When police tried to seize an African at the gate to the compound, there was a scuffle and the crowd advanced toward the fence. Police Commander G. D. Pienaar rapped out an order to his men to load. Within minutes, almost in a chain reaction, the police began firing with revolvers, rifles, Sten guns. A woman shopper patronizing a fruit stand at the edge of the crowd was shot dead. A ten-year-old boy toppled. Crazily, the unarmed crowd stampeded to safety as more shots rang out, leaving behind hundreds lying dead or woundedmany of them shot in the back. It was all over in two awful minutes.