An account of how The Hindu's coverage of the Sharpeville and Langa massacres in 1960 inspired a young man in a distant Indian town to become the newspaper's South African correspondent years later.
Some snippets of news and comments that appeared 50 years ago in this newspaper and reproduced in the column, This Day That Age, stirred up the dim memories of a man who, in his early twenties and working in Dharwad, Mysore State (as Karnataka was then known), was affected by the events in a distant land. The paper was not readily available in Dharwad those days. One bought a day-old copy at the Railway station bookstall.
The impact also rekindled older memories of listening some time in 1952 to A.K. Gopalan speak on preventive detention and the Telangana uprising at the intermediate college at Kolara town — then even smaller than it is now — which experience drew the lad of 16 away from the cesspit of rank reaction into which he would have irretrievably tumbled. Further spurred by the somewhat confused reading of serious political literature in the university library as part of research work, there began a process of political education that is still going on.
Those initial stirrings also marked the beginning of an involvement that eventually led, in a manner never anticipated or even imagined half-a-century ago, to a stay of eight years in the distant land, reporting for this newspaper. I refer to my stint as the correspondent of The Hindu in South Africa, based in Johannesburg and Cape Town, between 1994 and 2001 — the culmination of my career as a working journalist.
The events recalled in these brief extracts are the Sharpeville massacres of March 21, 1960. Sixty-nine black Africans were shot dead that morning in the black township, 35 miles south of Johannesburg, in just two minutes of sustained firing on unarmed marchers protesting against the oppressive Pass Laws that restricted them from moving freely within the country of their birth. Unlike the Soweto massacres that began on June 16, 1976 as a protest by schoolchildren against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction and became an uprising that persisted for over a year, with over 600 killed, the Sharpeville massacres were of a briefer duration. However, they were not limited to that particular day or township. While 69 persons were shot dead in Sharpeville, similar protests leading to police firing and death took place in Langa in Cape Town, and other black townships.
The reporting in this newspaper covered, to the extent one can recall what one read 50 years ago and from the snippets reproduced over 10 issues of the paper (March 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 29, 30 and April 1, 3 and 9), most of these issues and their aftermath, domestically and internationally. The first item appeared in the issue of March 23, 1960, two days after the massacre, under the headline, “Riots in S. Africa.” It reported that the police had fired on the Africans who had gathered in the “riot-torn streets of Langa Township near Cape Town on March 22…” The report referred primarily to the violence in Langa.
The March 21 killings at Sharpeville (the name is not mentioned) were reported as the result of “clashes” in which “the police said 66 Africans were killed and 186 injured.” The report also noted that the demonstrations against the Pass Law had been called by the Pan-Africanist Congress. However, it does not mention that the PAC tried to upstage and pre-empt the call by the African National Congress to launch protest demonstrations against the Pass laws on March 31. The PAC, which emerged from within the ranks of the ANC, was seen as a more ‘radical' and ‘Africanist' alternative to the ANC, which, in the PAC's view, had been taken over by the “Communists and Indians” — often one and the same in its perspective then. Nelson Mandela, who, after Sharpeville, left the country ‘illegally' and was travelling in many African countries, was surprised to see that most of their leaders had unquestioningly bought into the PAC rhetoric.
Jawaharlal Nehru's speech in Parliament on March 23, “Nehru condemns massacres (March 24),” reads truly prophetic. He described Sharpeville (the name still missing in the newspaper's report) as an event that “affected the course of history,” an episode that reminded him powerfully of what happened in Jalianwala Bagh 41 years ago. “I do not imagine that this large-scale killing and even more so the spirit behind it, the spirit of racial mastery, authoritarianism [one of the earliest instances of this usage in Indian political vocabulary], spirit of segregation, and treating the great majority of the people as an inferior race and sub-human species, can ever be accepted not only by them but by hundreds of millions in Africa and therefore this seems to be on the verge of more serious happenings, if not now, in the immediate future.” The report next day, still referring to “serious anti-pass riots” and still not mentioning Sharpeville, refers to the day of mourning called by the ANC, though a major part of the report deals with Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd's warning of “serious measures” against the protesters.
The warning of impending “serious measures” was an event foretold, for the very next day (March 26), as The Hindu reported under the heading “S. Africa Govt. ban,” came the apartheid regime's steps that would enable it to ban the ANC, the PAC and other organisations. Interestingly, the fig leaf of ‘legality' was still maintained. What was contemplated was the introduction of a Bill in Parliament that would empower the Governor-General to proclaim such a ban in the Government Gazette, not a ban by an executive fiat. This too was a prophecy foretold, for on April 1 (“Emergency in S. Africa,” April 3) the apartheid regime extended the state of emergency that was imposed immediately in the wake of Sharpeville to 31 more magisterial districts. The newspaper reported in two subsequent issues (March 27 and 29) the mobilisation of international opinion against the apartheid regime by the “Afro-Asian group in the U.N.” (the word ‘Afro' then carried a political meaning, unlike now) and much larger protest demonstrations in the Trafalgar Square, London, then as now housing the South African mission in Britain. The report on March 29 referred specifically to both Sharpeville and Langa for the first time. The demonstrations were to grow bigger, and also get confrontational, as the “hard apartheid” became the norm. Not surprisingly, the people were not cowed down by this prospect, for there was another report, “Violence in S. Africa,” the following day (March 30) that spoke of the persistence of violence in several parts of the country. In Cape Town, the paper reported, the police used teargas and batons, and burst warning shots against a crowd of Africans stoning buses and cars.
Another forum where international opinion was sought to be mobilised against the apartheid regime was the U.N. and its structures. The newspaper reported on April 1 (“S. Africa situation”) the speech by India's Permanent Representative at the U.N. Security Council, C.S. Jha, seeking urgent action by the Security Council. Jha told the UNSC that it owed it to itself and to humanity to “act decisively and save the world from the grave danger of a conflagration,” not the first instance where in the UNSC words never broke bones. The report noted that although India was not a member of the Security Council, it was allowed to speak on request as one of the 29 African and Asian countries that had signed the letter to the UNSC President. The pattern of Indian involvement in U.N. debates on the South African situation that began when India had not even formally attained freedom was to continue till South Africa became free, though a certain tepidness marked the Indian interest between Mr. Mandela's release and his becoming President of South Africa.
In these times of instant wisdom, it is difficult to imagine the impact these reports had on a young man in a small town hungering for something without a clear idea of what he wanted. These reports, one recalls, gave one a sense of some direction; but the search was to involve studying harder texts, and a hands-on experience of the grimy social reality. That story belongs to other realms, other times. And yet, one is grateful to the newspaper and its nameless reporters who provided a glimpse of a world and a society that remain even now a primary intellectual and political preoccupation.