Book Review: An Ordinary Atrocity

A policeman once described the events in Sharpeville on 21 March 1960 as an “ordinary atrocity”, a phrase so breathtaking Professor Philip Frankel used it for his book on the causes, conduct and aftermath of the massacre that left 69 residents dead and 180 wounded.
The late Democratic Party stalwart Helen Suzman writes in her foreword that this “dramatic story of the confrontation between the non-violent anti-pass protesters of the Pan Africanist Congress and the police at the Sharpeville Police Station is a tragic example of what can happen when neither protesters nor police have put in place the means with which to deal with crowd control.”
Frankel adds to this, stating “Sharpeville was, to put it simply, the result of leadership failure… The police had violated, circumvented, or otherwise ignored Standing Orders dealing with a potentially riotous situation and much of the capability lay with their officers who had neither warned the crowd to disperse within a specific time, fired over their heads if the order had been ignored, or, finally, at their feet as an indication of their seriousness of intent. All this is indisputable forty years later…
“Equally indisputable however is that extreme political behaviour by crowds, the very disarticulation of the crowd into the characteristically incoherent ‘mob`, is very much a product of those who lead and who, by their predominance, set both the strategic and moral example for large collectives of people.”           
“There can be no doubt that [PAC leader Robert] Sobukwe sought to build the PAC into an orderly and disciplined force… Nonetheless, in the crucial hour or two around 13.30 in Sharpeville, the field was left open for poorly trained community leaders and marshals in the much-vaunted PAC ‘task teams` whose primary purpose was to stir up the mob, and who were then either unable or unwilling to steer the crowd away from what was clearly fast becoming a cataclysmic situation.”
There were 294 policemen – 156 white and 138 black – inside the fenced-in police compound at Sharpeville that Monday morning when between 18 and 25 000 residents gathered outside; some egged on by the PAC, coming to surrender their pass books and themselves to police, some to watch the spectacle and others to hear “a big white boss” who, it was rumoured would address them at 2pm.
Outside, off to one side were some 90 more (including 29 white) in and on top of some Saracen armoured personnel carriers. The bare minimum were based at Sharpeville (one white sergeant, two white constables, four black detectives, a black sergeant and deputy sergeant and 20 constables. In addition there were two inspectors and a “Bantu Sergeant” of the Sharpeville municipal police. The rest were rushed to the township from nearby Vereeniging and Vanderbijlpark and from further afield: the nominal role shows police- white and black – drawn from Springs, Boksburg, Johannesburg Central police station, Bezuidenhout Valley, Jeppe, Bramley, Parkview, Rosebank and a number of other leafy suburb police posts. Police from 19 different stations were present that day.
Between them they had at least seven .25-inch pistols, 87 .38 revolvers, 73 .303 rifles and 20 9mm Sten submachine guns. Aboard the Saracens were four .303 Browning machine guns (which were not fired). While the majority of black policemen were armed with assegais, knobkerries and bayonets, the detectives and Sharpeville municipal police were armed with .25 pistols. Between them they would discharge 1344 rounds.
Frankel notes the presence of the Saracens and the second group of police on the flank of the crowd facing the police station gives lie “in large part to the notion that a small and isolated body of men was faced with an overwhelming threat from a gargantuan mob.” Lie or not, the participants recalled that “almost to a man, that elements in the crowd were also heavily armed with either pistols or rifles which they had every intention of using should the opportunity present itself. This calculation was apparently confirmed by the reinforcements who had run the gauntlet [that included stoning] from the edge of the township to the centre, and who had heard (but not actually seen) shots fired in the general tumult accompanying their passage.”
The crowd included a criminal element and some of these were indeed armed and a few in fact fired into the air – if only to bolster their own morale and sense of power.         
In addition to working themselves into a frenzy of fear at the singing-chanting crowd outside, the white police also convinced themselves their black colleagues could not be trusted. In fact, a Security Police directive the month before urged white commanders to keep their black auxiliaries under close surveillance in order to counter political “contamination” from the communities in which they served: this in addition to other measures already taken, including drawing rural recruits to police urban blacks and ensuring that the auxiliaries and the community were from dissimilar tribes.          
“While this surveillance produced nothing concrete to suggest that the black police … would mutiny or defect under pressure, the very existence of a racial link between the police in the station and the crowd outside was sufficient to convince at least some of the white SAP members that they faced a dual threat.       
While some in the crowd were waiting for a senior administrative official from the Department of Bantu Administration and Development to come address them at 2pm to “make a momentous (if unspecified) announcement regarding the future of the pass system, others took pleasure in taunting police. “We took great delight in shouting ‘Cato Manor` … because we knew it would disturb the Boers,” said one protestor. “It certainly did!” Frankel adds.
There some weeks before, a small force of police on a “normal” pass and liquor control raid. “In a situation not dissimilar to that brewing in Sharpeville, the small police force had been obliged to barricade itself in two adjacent huts which were eventually stormed by more than a thousand rioters. The more fortunate of the nine police who died had simply been stoned to death, but there were cases of disembowelment…”             
A low-level fly-by by the Air Force seemed to raise the carnival-like atmosphere rather than intimidate the crowd. Vereeniging district commander Major van Zyl thought a buzzing would cow and disperse the crowd. “The response was not what the authorities had expected. Rather than fleeing the scene in anticipation of imminent bombing, the crowd, and particularly the young, simply waved at what they still term ‘the flights` in friendly acknowledgement. … There were cries of glee from the children, none of whom had actually seen a fighter aircraft in flight. Among the adults, the appearance of the aircraft seemed an affirmation of the importance of the occasion. ‘We were”, in the words of one old survivor, ‘honoured that the government had blessed us with its presence in the air.`”  
As the morning progressed and the crowd grew around the station, they increasingly pressed against the security fence, which was soon “leaning dangerously inward”, reinforcing “a deep sense of dread among the police…”   
The time was 13.29 and there was, at that precise and tiny moment of history pregnant was disaster, a inexplicable lull in the noise that had risen all morning long from the throats of the crowd.
“At that very moment, as [Colonel Att] Spengler stumbled, the shots from Geelbooi`s gun – two small cracks reverberated through the air… Who was Geelbooi and why did he fire? What happened next? Get Frankel`s book and read…        
Next March, March 2010, will mark the 60th anniversary of this “ordinary atrocity”. The year will also see the Soccer World Cup which will, as the recent general election showed, and June`s Confederations Cup will confirm, attract all kinds of protesters to remonstrate all kinds of issues in the main events.
We can no doubt also expect some street theatre – and some violence – during several of the upcoming wage negotiations such as that for the security (guard) industry. Tensions will likely run high as tight company margins clash with empty worker wallets.            
It is therefore disconcerting to note the police have unlearned much that they knew about crowd control in favour of novel tactics, techniques and procedures. Expert opinion is they will not work, save to endanger both the police and crowds they are sent to control. In addition, police officers “on the ground” seem to ignore all this and apply brute force. 
In early February television footage showed police firing at a disabled student and at a journalist at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in Pretoria in what Gauteng community safety MEC Firoz Cachalia labelled “clear evidence of police officers involved in unlawful assault of protesters.”
Cachalia said he appreciated the difficult situation that police officers often found themselves in during tense and volatile protests. But it was the responsibility of the police to uphold the rule of law and ensure public safety.
“Most importantly the police need to ensure that the rights of peaceful protesters are respected,” said Cachalia. “In a democratic society we cannot allow and will not tolerate gratuitous violence by the police who have the responsibility to enforce law and observe Constitution-protected freedoms.” Indeed.   
Crowd control is a serious business, and An Ordinary Atrocity is a reminder why.
An Ordinary Atrocity – Sharpeville and Its Massacre 
Philip Frankel
Yale University Press
New Haven