"An Ordinary Atrocity" by Philip Frankel

An Ordinary Atrocity Sharpeville and Its Massacre Philip Frankel

Publication date:
03 Sep 2001
Yale University Press
272 pages: 229 x 152 x 14mm
black & white illustrations

On 21 March 1960 police opened fire on members of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) protesting peacefully in the South African township of Sharpeville against apartheid's iniquitous 'pass laws'. Sixty-nine people died, many shot in the back. The shots fired that day in an obscure corner of South Africa reverberated around the world and Sharpeville became a symbol of the evil of the apartheid system. This seminal event in the history of African nationalism has never been systematically documented. The Wessels Commission of Inquiry established to investigate the crisis never published a satisfactory final report. And in the four decades since the shooting the massacre has been so mythologised and contorted to serve various political interests as to preclude a thorough investigation. Philip Frankel's book now corrects that deficiency.

Drawing on a wide range of sources - from policemen to survivors and families of victims - he tells the raw and hitherto invisible story of this watershed moment in South Africa's experience. In doing so he reveals the dubious behaviour of the South African Police, new findings on the role of the PAC, the extent and nature of the casualties, and the role of individuals whose behaviour in the vortex was critical to its tragic outcome. The book ends with the signing - by the then president, Nelson Mandela - of South Africa's first democratic constitution at the very site of the massacre. 

Philip Frankel is senior lecturer in the Political Studies Department of the University of the Witwatersrand. Among his books are Pretoria's Praetorians: Civil-Military Relations in South Africa (1984) and Soldiers in a Storm: The Armed Forces in South Africa's Democratic Transition (2000).

"A well-written and carefully considered forensic account of one of the most iconic moments in the struggle for liberation in South Africa."—Saul Dubow, University of Sussex