Book review – Sharpeville

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In the history of nations there are always events that function as watershed. They are the peaks of a journey where things can be define either before or after them. In the long journey to freedom in South Africa there are many such events: the Zulu empire, the Great Trek, the British concentration camps to break Boer’s resistance, the advent of apartheid… Then there is Sharpeville, a massacre that was waiting to happen, one of those events that define the history of a people. On March 21, 1960, a line of white policemen outside the Sharpeville’s Police Station fired 1344 rounds into the crowd gathered in the public square. They were several thousand and they had gone there to protest against the Apartheid regime’s racist ‘pass laws’. When the guns fell silent, sixty-seven people were dead and one hundred and eighty six wounded. They were all shot in the back, hit while running away.
      The Sharpeville Massacre was the end of a possible dialogue between the white minority and the black majority. It marked the start of armed resistance in South Africa, and prompted worldwide condemnation of South Africa. For years, people looked back at the Massacre, at the planned extermination of innocent people, to find the strength to continue the struggle. Others claimed it was an accident, something the Boer government did not plan. Shining away from an emotional reading of events, and basing his evaluation on documents and interviews with survivors, Tom Lodge explains how and why the Massacre occurred. In his book Sharpeville, an apartheid massacre and its consequences, Lodge guides the reader into the meander of the social and political background of the events, as well as the long-term consequences of the shootings.
      The author offers a detailed account of the event, and provides the historical background to understand it in the backdrop of the simultaneous protest in Cape Town which fomented the political crisis that developed in the wake of the shootings. Lodge also offers good insights on the long term consequences of the ‘pass laws’ and the strife they caused. Sharpeville affected the perceptions of black and white political leadership in South Africa as well as South Africa’s relationship with the rest of the world, and the development of an international Anti-Apartheid movement in the wake of the shootings.
      In South Africa today, March 21 marks Human Rights Day. It is a public holiday and to many it is a day of mourning and memorial. Sharpeville is a good text to reconstruct what happened, but also to understand what can still go wrong in any society where human rights are not upheld. The book is no easy read. It commands full attention and the will to introspect in oneís own life. It is a professional account, historically correct and well researched. At the same time, it will be of great help to those who wish to read history with the purpose of educating future generations on the dangers of bigotry and false claims of superiority.
Tom Lodge, Sharpeville, an apartheid massacre and its consequences, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2011, pp. XII + 423.


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