Guest Column

The media and the Sharpeville shootings

2016-03-21 10:27
Terry Bell

Terry Bell

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Human Rights Day today owes its origin to the massacre at Sharpeville. However, it was only on April 2 that the first accurate eyewitness report appeared because the mainstream media refused to accept anything that contradicted the police.

The supposedly liberal Rand Daily Mail was first offered the report by journalist Humphrey Tyler who, together with photographer Ian Berry were the only two journalists present when the shooting starting, killing 69 people and seriously wounding 180. It was rejected on the grounds that the newspaper already had a “factual report” from the police.

Tyler and Berry both worked for the monthly magazine, Drum, that prided itself on being the only publication that reported on “what was really going on in the country”. 

Aware that a peaceful anti-pass protest was planned for Monday, March 21 1960 by the then recently launched Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) the magazine published its April edition on that day. 

Tyler recalled later: “On the cover was a full colour picture of Sobukwe (PAC leader Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe) and his lieutenants striding across the page with their huge flag.  A headline on a yellow background right across the page asked:  WHO ARE THE AFRICANISTS?

By that night, as word of the shootings at Sharpeville spread, with the police claiming they had been attacked by an enraged mob, there was not a Drum magazine to be had at any of the regular outlets. But Tyler had an exclusive eyewitness account that told how panicky police had fired on an unarmed crowd, shooting many in the back as they fled. And Berry had pictures to prove it.

Tyler, now retired and living in the Eastern Cape, recalls, as he also wrote at the time: “We believed that if the report was not published quickly, the government would not allow it to be published at all.”

So Tyler gave it to Contact, the newspaper of the tiny Liberal Party that published the first truly factual report April 2, three days after a state of emergency had been declared. Any issues of Contact and the “subversive”, March 21 edition of Drum that the police could find were confiscated as hundreds of activists were rounded up and detained.

On Friday, April 8, this was followed up with the banning of the ANC and the PAC. 

For a liberal farmer from Magaliesberg, David Beresford Pratt, this seems to have been the last straw. Knowing that on Saturday, April 9, prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd would be in the members’ stand at the Rand Easter Show in Johannesburg, he took his small calibre pistol to the show and shot Verwoerd twice in the head.

Verwoerd survived and Pratt, like Dimitri Tsafendas who stabbed Verwoerd to death in Parliament six years later, was declared insane. He committed suicide a year later.


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