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Robert Sobukwe’s Instrumental Role in The 1960 Sharpeville Protest Against ‘Pass Laws’

Robert Sobukwe’s Instrumental Role In The 1960 Sharpeville Protest Against ‘Pass Laws’

Mangaliso Sobukwe’s Instrumental Role in The 1960 Sharpeville Uprising


“At the age of 36 Sobukwe has a rare distinction of having scared the South African government out of its wits. As anybody knows by now, the South African government does not scare easy.” One who is not well in the know may be tempted to accuse legendary writer and journalist Lewis Nkosi’s meditations on Managaliso Robert Sobukwe of being affected by a breath of hyperbole. The truth is, the glowing review above falls short of encapsulating Sobukwe’s gift as one of Africa’s finest leaders, but admittedly does come close to fully documenting the effect the latter had on the Apartheid government – at its height – after coordinating a series of countrywide protests including the Sharpeville Uprising on the 21st of March 1960.

There is no shortage of literature documenting South Africa under apartheid rule where black people’s right to political and economic self-determination, through their dispossession of land and anti-black racism, was impeded on with the most savage brutality. A constant reminder of black people’s position as subhuman and societal prisoners in Apartheid was the mandatory carrying of ‘passes’ or the ‘dompas’ as it was notoriously known, under the Pass Laws. These were used to severely limit and violently control the movement of black people in the country, and were for this reason a constant subject of engagement in virtually all black conferences and political gatherings in the country. What would distinguish black political parties unanimous detest of the pass laws qua the apartheid government would be the method to apply in combating the pass system and achieving ultimate liberation for black people. Sobukwe, and his liberation movement, the Pan Africanist Congress, got in ahead of other liberation movements with a countrywide call to ‘Positive Action against Pass Laws’ on the 21st March 1960.

Sobukwe, as president of the PAC, called for non-violent protest action against the pass laws where the African masses affected by the heinous pass system were to be led from the front by the movement’s leaders in a campaign that was intended to ‘last until… demands are met’. “Prof”, as Sobukwe was fondly known in political circles, is said to have been steadfast in his conviction that true leaders are to lead from the front, thereby inspiring the masses to follow. The program of action for the anti-pass campaign would be as follows; the black people under the leadership of the PAC leaders were to leave their passes at home, stay away from work and instead embark on a march to every police station and demand to be arrested for contravention of the of the pass laws. All were to accept jail time under the slogan ‘no bail, no defence, no fine’. The goal was to force the apartheid government’s hand by overloading prisons and simultaneously halting economic production by staying away from work, thereby bankrupting the state and precipitating a shift in power where the blacks as the majority group would be in a position to reclaim their sovereignty through land expropriation and therefore attain independence at the backdrop of the wave of Independent states achieved elsewhere in Africa through the likes of Kwame Nkrumah and his Ghana nation.

Non-violence was an important platform upon which the campaign was to be run, and Sobikwe never failed to stress it. “My instructions, therefore, are that our people must be taught now and continuously that in this campaign we are going to observe absolute non-violence.”, the astute leader said. He also went through other lengths such as writing a letter to the then Commissioner of South African Police, Major-General C.I. Rademeyer, eloquently stating the nature of the anti-pass campaign as non-violent and also pleading with the police to refrain from initiating or provoking any violence. “…I therefore appeal to you to instruct your men not to give impossible demands to my people. The usual mumbling by a police officer of an order requiring the people to disperse within three minutes, and almost immediately ordering a baton charge, deceives nobody and shows the police up as sadistic bullies. I sincerely hope that such actions will not occur this time. If the police are interested in maintain law and order, they will have no difficulty at all. We will surrender ourselves to the police for arrest. If told to disperse, we will. But we cannot be expected to run helter-skelter because a trigger-happy, African-hating young white police officer has given thousands or hundreds of people three minutes to remove their bodies from his immediate environment. Hoping you will co-operate to try and make this a most peaceful and disciple campaign.”


On the Monday morning of 21 march 1960, Sobukwe led a few hundred Africans to their nearest police station in Orlando. Similar events were taking place at even larger scales in terms of numbers at other parts of the country under the leaders of the Pan Africanist Congress. Sobukwe and scores of other Africans were jailed on the day, but his plea for peaceful demonstration by eschewing violence and/or the provocation thereof evidently fell on deaf ears with regards to the apartheid police, as at places like Sharpeville, Langa, Uitenhage and others, a hail of bullets was opened towards the black people who were peacefully contesting their right to life, killing no less than 83 black people, leaving 365 wounded at the end of that day. The whimsical nature with which the apartheid police opened fire on the black protestors revealed the cheapness with which black life was generally associated. It is the events of this day that, under the democratic South Africa, is celebrated as Human Rights Day.


After initial reluctance, the African National Congress joined in on the ongoing campaign, but the Government was to apply severe measures to contain the situation, and subsequently banned both the PAC and ANC, although the passes were provisionally suspended. Mangaliso Sobukwe had precipitated events which left the apartheid state in a serious economic crises and even had to resort to loaning funds from the United States to sustain its programs. When his jail term of three years was up, laws were amended in by the apartheid government at parliament to keep Sobukwe in particular under indefinite incarceration. This particular law became famous as the ‘Sobukwe clause’, which allowed for the arbitrary extension of Sobukwe’s incarceration in jail by a year, each year, without trial, from 1963 until 69, and thenceforth subjecting him to house arrest until his death in 1978 in Kimberly. This totalled his incarceration to 18 years from 1960. It is this giant historical figure, along with the courageous masses of Sharpeville, Langa and the like, that the country could ill-forget for putting up arguably the most valiant action against the apartheid government. Sobukwe rightly belongs in the top echelon of political figures in African history, and should have his history actively illuminated upon the South African historical landscape, not in the least for helping “…to orchestrate a crisis that panicked the South African (Apartheid) government and nearly brought about the kind of political situation which too often makes for the transfer of power overnight.”



1. The Land Is Ours, Motsoko Pheko

2. How Can Man Die Better, Benjamin Pogrund

Robert Sobukwe’s Instrumental Role in The 1960 Sharpeville Protest Against ‘Pass Laws’