Countdown to a massacre, March 21 1960

MARCH 7 1960: Robert Sobukwe makes announcement about the national anti-pass campaign scheduled to start on March 21.

Friday March 18: The Sharpeville PAC Task Force members escalate their final mobilisation issuing pamphlets and holding a series of meetings.

Saturday March 19: A mass meeting is addressed by Nyakane Tsolo, PAC branch chairman and Thomas More.

Sunday March 20: Many meetings are held including one at the local beer hall. Task Force members canvas local churches and business for support.

Monday March 21 3am: Major van Zyl dispatches police reinforcement to Sharpeville, assisted by Captain Cawood after the police were alerted by informers about the PAC Task Force activities throughout the nights of the 19th and 20th.

At 4am: A small group gathers at Seiso, the main street, while another gathers at the entrance to the township and turn buses away.

At 5am: The bus company, fearful of risking the lives of African bus drivers, orders that white drivers be assigned to drive the buses and collect workers from the township.

Buses arrive under police escort but are pelted with stones and repelled out of the township.

The crowd was becoming bigger and fired by chants, songs, shouting in thunderous unison: "Izwe Lethu! Mayibuye iAfrica!" and "Thina sizwe se Afrika, sikhalel'umhlaba wethu!"

The PAC's open palm salute was thrust high through the ominous, anticipation-filled air. Major van Zyl hurriedly leaves for Vereeniging to seek police reinforcement.

At 10.20am: Captain Coetzee arrives with 13 "European" and six African policemen. The crowd had by this time increased to about "eight to 10 thousand people."

Captain van Zyl informs the Commissioner of the increasing volatile situation while Coetzee makes a request for an aircraft. Coetzee, without following police protocol and fearful of the menacing crowd, requests the support of the Vereeniging "Skiet Kommando".

At 11.15am: Captain van Der Linde arrives, backed up by two Saracens, each manned by five policemen. The aircraft has arrived and is hovering above the waving crowd.

At 11.45am: Captain Theron arrives with additional reinforcement and heads to the police station where the crowd had gathered demanding to be arrested.

The crowd has virtually closed the police station and blocked every available access. The crowd is now numbering between 20 000 to 35 000 people.

Just before 1pm: Colonel Prinsloo, Col Sprengler, Captain Williers and Sergeant Wessels from the Security Branch, together with Captain Brummer and Lt Freemantle arrive with three additional Saracens.

Attempts to address the crowd draw a blank and the people continue to sing.

Realising their inability to control the situation, Colonel Sprengler approaches Tsolo and asks him to address the crowd to disperse. Tsolo, addressing the crowd, answers unequivocally, "We will not call this (gathering) off until Sobukwe has spoken."

Tsolo tells Sprengler: "I represent these people. We want our freedom." Lt Colonel Pienaar orders the police to load their guns. White policemen are armed with .303 rifles and Sten guns while the African policemen carry batons.

At 1.15pm: Police station gates give way under the weight of the crowd.

Police panic and open fire with live ammunition. A torrent of bullets pierce through the backs of the running men, women and children.

l NB. This article is based on oral interviews and archival research.