Monday, 22 March 2010

Sharpeville Shockwaves

David Rosario was an 18-year-old student at the time of the South African Sharpeville Massacre. He participated in the London protests on Trafalgar Square. He remembers the London reaction and his feelings in March 1960.

‘I wake up late, following a long evening’s study and dash for the bus. The news on the transistor is shocking. Dozens of black people are shot by police in South Africa. At college everyone is numbed by the newspaper photos of bodies strewn across the streets. Many victims were shot in their backs as they fled the police – “Sixty-nine people dead – hundreds wounded and injured”. This is the worst incident in South Africa since apartheid was instituted in the aftermath of the Second World War. Some of us, very very angry, want to take immediate action. Our lecturer turns a blind eye. Those most determined decide to go and protest outside the South African High Commission building. Nobody has any experience of demonstrating. We think a placard is needed and agree to meet later at the venue.

We arrive mid-morning at Trafalgar Square. Other demonstrators are already gathering in front of South Africa House, which is bounded by Trafalgar Square, the Strand and Duncannon Street. The building looks empty with locked gates. We join the others, obliged by the police to walk up and down along the narrow, sloping pavement, squeezing past a bus queue. We are not allowed to stop at all. Placards arrive. We take turns in carrying them. There are a few hundred demonstrators present. It is difficult to gauge what effect we’re having on the public and the situation is surreal. Police ensure we keep moving, threatening arrest. We feel dazed as the enormity of the disaster finally sinks in. I think of the horrific newspaper images. We vent anger in bursts of periodic chanting, frustrated that the site is so constricting, that there is only an ‘empty’ building on which to focus and that we can’t stand still. “Verwoerd OUT – Verwoerd OUT”, we bellow. We get through the long day knowing that at least we won’t be shot at.

As it darkens some protesters drift away. Later in the evening, there are even fewer people about. Only Max, a friend, and I remain from college. Eventually the police stop the demonstration at the corner of Duncannon Street and prevent us from turning back down into the loop. We’re aggrieved since we’re not doing any harm and have kept moving all day to comply with the police’s instructions. “O.K. folks”, says a constable, “You’ve done enough demonstrating today - time to go home”. We protest loudly. The police are insistent and edge us away along Duncannon Street.

Max and I decide to go for a coffee. We talk about the day’s activities and what will happen next in South Africa. We’re extremely despondent. We leave. Max thinks he can catch a bus home from the stop in front of South Africa House. We can’t see any other demonstrators. We walk towards the Square, curious also to see if ‘anything’ is still happening. Before the two of us turn at the south east corner of Trafalgar Square a line of six police approach. They recognise us and question our destination and intentions. Max says he is going to the bus stop and that I am accompanying him. Suddenly, an inspector appears from around the corner behind them: “Having trouble lads? Arrest ‘em”, he shouts.

Immediately, they grab us. We go limp as we are pushed into a side doorway of the High Commission building. We are then frog-marched along the Strand to a waiting ‘Black Maria’ police van where we join others whom we recognise. Eventually we’re all taken to Bow Street police station and queue to be ‘processed’. We’re all charged with “Using Insulting Words and Behaviour”. We’re put in cells for a while and then released on police bail sporadically, until our morning appearances at court. I catch the night bus home and creep in to the flat.

I say nothing to my parents in the morning as I leave for ‘college’. At Bow Street court I’m very surprised to see my stepfather. “How did you know about this?” I ask him. “How do you think you got bail? A policeman called last night to check your address”, he retorts. There were about 20 arrests in total. Everyone is remanded on bail, Max and I for two weeks. We decide to contact the National Council for Civil Liberties. They offer to provide us with a solicitor whom we meet before the court case. His name is Clinton Davis. We follow the earlier cases avidly in the press. The police are not having much success.

We decide go to Court to see a similar case the afternoon before our hearing. The defendants are Cheddi Jagan, Chief Minister of British Guiana and another minister, on official visit to Britain. Sir Lawrence Dunne, Chief Metropolitan Magistrate is hearing their case. They are charged with the same offence as us. In summing up Sir Lawrence says to them: “Had you been charged with Obstruction you would have been technically guilty on the evidence. As you weren’t the case is dismissed.” Max and I look at each other. What are our chances now? We daren’t hope.

We appear in court the following afternoon, April 6th, and arrive in plenty of time to meet up with our solicitor. Before he arrives a police officer takes us into a room and tells us how “There is a second charge against you – Obstruction”. We are dumbstruck and extremely worried. After a hurried chat to Davis we are summoned, faced by a stern looking Sir Lawrence. About 15 of our college friends are in the packed public gallery, wearing college scarves. I am wearing a black tie in sympathy. Clinton Davis asks why the second charge has only just been made. A perfunctory reply is given. Davis decides to still proceed when asked. Charges are read out and we both plead not guilty. The prosecution opens. A young policeman who we don’t recognise takes the stand. He reads from his notebook ‘quoting’ us and claiming that we had sworn violently at the arresting officers. When Max and I hear the evidence we look at each other, jaws literally dropping. I am called into the witness box first and cross-examined. I am so incensed with disbelief that I practically spit out my denials – “No, no, no”! Max too is furious, although calmer than me. I decide that if I am found guilty I will most definitely appeal whatever happens!

In his summary our solicitor points out the irregularity of the very late second charge, which he describes as an act of police desperation. We wait and are then asked to stand. Sir Lawrence speaks slowly and deliberately as he peers over his glasses towards us. “You probably did what the police said you did”… I bridle at this… “But I can’t convict you on a probability”… He then quickly adds, “so the case is dismissed”. There is a cheer in the public gallery. Everybody is so relieved – first that we have no conviction, but principally that justice has prevailed, albeit with a face-saving gesture to the authorities. The Metropolitan Police get very few, if any, convictions in this affair, even though the ‘court’ appears to be ‘on their side’.

Our view of the police takes a bad knock. Hearing lies spoken against us on oath in court is a violent shock. However, it does not stop me from opposing apartheid, nor prevent me from eventually joining another part of the criminal justice system as a probation officer.

A few days after our court appearance, South African President Vervoerd is shot in the face. He survives the attempt on his life but is assassinated five years later, in 1966. Apartheid continues until the 1980s and 1990s. I continue to boycott South African produce until the mid-90s. Fifty years on, it still feels disloyal to drink a glass of South African wine or to consume anything with ’Outspan’ on it.

After the killing of 69 black South Africans, the world judged apartheid to be morally bankrupt. The political agitation that ensued would eventually overturn white supremacy, writes Gary Baines, in: Remembering Sharpeville

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