Cold Open - Sharpeville Massacre
It’s March 21st, 1960 in Sharpeville, South Africa.
21-year-old Daniel and two of his friends head toward the local police station. They’re joining thousands of other Black South Africans protesting the racist Apartheid policies of their country’s oppressive white minority government. Daniel squeezes his way into the throng, holding up a sign, and shouting along with everyone else.
Daniel feels the energy in the crowd pick up as people clap, drum, and sing. Soon though, a small group of police officers steps outside of the station. Seeing them, Daniel and the others shout even louder. But suddenly, above the noise… Daniel hears a gunshot. He crouches down alongside the other protestors. He has no idea where the shot came from. But he can see more police coming out of the station. The officers yell to each other, but he can’t make out what they’re saying. Moments later, the police raise their weapons.
The sound of machine gun fire cuts through the air. Daniel and his two friends take off running, as do thousands of other protestors.
Sirens wail from the police station as the shooting continues. Both of Daniel’s friends are struck by bullets and fall to the ground, lost in the trample of the crowd.
But Daniel can't help them. The police are still firing at the panicked protestors. And Daniel is terrified, running for his life when just moments earlier, he was marching for justice.
In 1960, South Africa is governed by Apartheid, a system of laws and policies created by the white minority South African government to segregate and subjugate the Black majority. Apartheid has been in place for roughly twelve years, though its roots can be traced back decades earlier.
Much of the world has turned a blind eye to the horrific situation in South Africa. But on March 21st, 1960, police fired over 1300 rounds into a crowd of protestors, leaving 69 of them dead, and hundreds more wounded. The Sharpeville Massacre, as this event will come to be known, will grab the attention of the foreign press and many political leaders across the globe. After Sharpeville, the international community will finally start to acknowledge the brutality of Apartheid; but true change in South Africa will come from within, and it will largely center around one man; the leader of the African National Congress political party: Nelson Mandela.
At the time of the Sharpville massacre, Mandela is on trial for treason against the South African government. But the events at Sharpeville will galvanize the African National Congress and thrust Mandela to the forefront of the anti-Apartheid movement. Finally, after a decades-long struggle, Mandela will fulfill the hopes of millions when he is sworn in as South Africa’s first Black president on May 10th, 1994.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is May 10th: Nelson Mandela Becomes President.
Act One: Mandela goes underground
It’s August 1960 in a courtroom in Pretoria, South Africa.
Mandela takes the stand as a witness in his own trial. He scans the chamber and takes a breath. The atmosphere is charged, but Mandela is oddly calm. He plans to use his time as a witness to get across a broader political message.
Mandela and the other members of the African National Congress, or ANC, have spent months on trial. The evidence against them is scarce; they’re charged with organizing rallies and protests that the South African government claims were designed to spark a coup. And tensions have been high since the trial began. But after the Sharpeville Massacre, Mandela decided to use his time in court not just to defend himself, but to decry the violence of Apartheid and speak out for the Black South African majority.
Today, Mandela looks at the three judges overseeing the trial. He adopts the cadence and energy of a seasoned politician as he addresses the room. Mandela shares his passionate belief in nonviolent protest. He says he fears the South African government is moving toward fascism, and that South Africans of all races must fight for democracy. Mandela also makes it clear that in a true democracy, Blacks must be allowed to vote.
In his speech, Mandela focuses on his anti-Apartheid message, but he also manages to speak about peace and cooperation during a time when violence and fear dominate the debate over the rights of Black South Africans. The trial drags on for several more months, but in the end, the three judges in charge were persuaded by Mandela and find him and the others not guilty.
Mandela’s acquittal is a victory for Black South Africans. But he knows the three judges went against the wishes of those in power. The government wants him silenced, and Mandela believes it’s only a matter of time before they drum up new charges and have him arrested again.
So following the trial, Mandela makes a quick stop at his home in a small township within Johannesburg. He tosses some clothes and essentials into a suitcase, says goodbye to his wife, and goes “underground.”
Throughout 1960, Mandela moves between safe houses scattered across the country. But he uses his connections in the print media to get his message out to the public. While in hiding, Mandela’s image as a leader and spokesperson of the anti-Apartheid cause grows. He’s viewed as a man who has given up his own life in the name of progress.
And while staying on the move, Mandela uses his leadership role to organize events that he hopes will weaken the government’s grip on Black South Africans. Mandela comes to believe that the most effective way to make the government pay attention is by hitting the powers that be where it hurts the most: their wallets.
In the spring of 1961, Mandela and other ANC members plan a mass three-day strike set to take place in late May. Mandela knows if the Black majority refuses to work, the country will shut down. He wants to demonstrate to everyone in charge that Black South Africans drive the nation’s economy.
But all throughout his planning and preparations for the event, Mandela reiterates the importance of non-violent protest. Still, the government gears up for the strike as if they’re preparing for war. Throughout May, the government deploys armored trucks and helicopters into Black communities and starts making arrests, often for little or no reason. But Mandela does not call off the strike.
Then on May 29th, 1961, thousands of Black workers take part in the first day of the event and refuse to work. But the media portrays the act of protest as a failure. One paper sums up the strike with the headline, “Most go to work. All quiet.” Thanks in large part to the media’s slanted reporting, the strike fails to gather momentum. And soon, Mandela and other ANC leaders make the difficult decision to call off the remainder of the strike.
Mandela blames himself for not anticipating the media’s role in pushing government propaganda. But he walks away from the strike with a new determination. He realizes that nonviolent resistance alone won’t bring about the change he wants and that the oppressive forces in the government will never buckle under the weight of mere protests.
So for the remainder of 1961, Mandela will work to create a splinter group of the ANC, known as the MK. This guerilla army will strike at the heart of the government, and solidify Mandela’s image as a revolutionary, and in the minds of many, the most dangerous man in the country.
Act Two: Violence, arrest, and jail
It’s June 1961, at a safe house in South Africa.
Mandela sits at a desk, furiously writing an important statement for the press.
In the days following the work strike, Mandela shifted his focus away from nonviolent protest to creating a new military arm of their operation: the MK, an abbreviation of a Zulu phrase meaning “Spear of the Nation.” While the ANC will continue to work for political change, MK will specialize in the use of force.
Today, as he writes, Mandela holds nothing back. He starts with, “We plan to make governing impossible.” Mandela doesn’t give specifics, but he goes on to state that his group will apply “mass pressure to force the race maniacs who govern our beloved country to make way for a democratic government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
Once Mandela’s words are made public, his message sparks fear in the government, and they quickly ramp up their efforts to find and apprehend him. In October 1961, Mandela flees to a secure hiding place at Liliesleaf Farm in northern Johannesburg. There, he and other group leaders plan their first major attack.
On December 16th, members of MK set off explosives at government buildings and electrical transformers in multiple cities. The attacks rally even more supporters to Mandela’s cause, but they also put the police’s efforts to find Mandela into overdrive.
In early 1962, Mandela flees again and heads out of the country. He uses his time on the run to bolster support for his movement. He travels to several African countries to meet with government leaders. He finds himself continually inspired by African nations that are led by Africans. And he shares that inspiration with his own people.
And even while traveling abroad in secret, Mandela makes many public statements. One of his recurring themes is that “the cornerstone for freedom and democracy in South Africa lies within South Africa itself.”
While MK continues its guerilla tactics, Mandela encourages his followers to keep the pressure on with nonviolent protests. By now, Mandela has evolved into a blend of a military revolutionary and a pragmatic political leader. The white minority government of South Africa view this as a dangerous combination. And they do not let up in their efforts to bring him to heel.
On August 5th, 1962, Mandela is caught and arrested while making his way back into South Africa. He is put on trial and found guilty of leaving the country illegally and inciting the labor strike of 1961. Mandela is sentenced to five years behind bars, but the government continues to search for evidence of other, more severe crimes.
They find what they’re looking for in July of 1963 when they raid Liliesleaf Farm. There, they find documents outlining MK’s guerilla activities. They immediately charge Mandela with sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government. This time, Mandela is again found guilty, but this time sentenced to life in prison.
But incarceration does not silence Mandela's voice or hinder his cause; it only brings more attention to the horrors of Apartheid and makes Mandela the international face of the Free South Africa movement. For decades, Mandela will spread his message of hope and democracy from behind prison walls.
And before long, “Free Mandela” becomes a rallying cry for anti-Apartheid groups all over the world. Many resort to drastic and often violent measures. By the 1980s, the government is desperate to quell the growing unrest. So they try to strike a deal.
In February of 1985, over 20 years after Mandela's trial for seditious conspiracy, the government offers Mandela a pardon if he’ll renounce the violence being perpetrated in his name. Mandela refuses; unless the government ends Apartheid. Mandela’s commitment to the cause only elevates his standing in the eyes of his followers, and it helps to further galvanize the movement. As the years go on, calls to end Apartheid, and to free Nelson Mandela, gather steam in South Africa and all across the globe.
Eventually, these messages force the hand of the South African government. In 1989, the push to end white rule in South Africa reaches its peak, and even gains traction among a growing number of South Africa’s white minority. And amidst these calls for change, South Africa elects an anti-Apartheid president: F.W. de Klerk.
De Klerk claims he will confront the sins of South Africa’s past head-on by phasing out Apartheid. De Klerk wants to work with Black South African leaders to make the necessary changes to the country. And he knows that one leader, above all others, must be part of South Africa’s future.
In 1990, after 27 years in prison, Mandela is set free. He spends the next several years fighting for democracy at home and urging foreign leaders to continue pressuring South Africa to end Apartheid.
Mandela and de Klerk’s push for change garners them a joint Nobel Peace Prize in December 1993. And just four months later, Mandela’s dream of democracy in South Africa becomes a reality when citizens of all races cast their votes in a free and fair contest. And then, after the nation’s first truly democratic election, Nelson Mandela will become South Africa’s first Black president.
Act Three: Mandela sworn-in
It’s May 10th, 1994 in Pretoria, South Africa.
Nelson Mandela sits on a dais in front of a cheering crowd. A band plays music, and onlookers celebrate the historic moment as the 75-year-old Mandela takes his oath of office. Then, he steps to a microphone and gives his first speech as the President of South Africa. Mandela thanks those who have supported him on his journey. Then, he speaks to the present and the future of his nation.
"MANDELA: The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us. We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender, and other discrimination. We succeeded to take our last steps of freedom in conditions of relative peace. We commit ourselves to the construction of a complete, just, and lasting peace."
Mandela sets out immediately to gain support for his rapidly changing country. He visits world leaders and secures business and trade agreements to help bolster South Africa’s struggling economy. Mandela also engages in a mission of reconciliation between Black and White South Africans. He often uses sports as a means to bring communities together, which culminates in South Africa hosting and winning the Rugby World Cup in 1995.
Mandela serves as president until 1999, but his influence on South African politics is felt long after. Many of the policies and plans he set in motion come to fruition in the years after his departure. And in the early 2000s, Mandela tours the world, meeting with political and religious leaders, preaching his message of peace.
But in 2004, with growing health concerns, Mandela retires from public life. He lives a largely quiet existence until 2013 when he passes away at the age of 95. At the time of his death, Mandela has already inspired generations of activists around the world. But his words and actions continue to inspire those who are dedicated to the struggle for freedom and equality; a fight Mandela carried out for most of his life, and one that brought him to make history by becoming the first Black South African president on May 10th, 1994.
Next on History Daily. May 11th, 1812. A disgruntled former merchant named John Bellingham shoots and kills Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister assassinated in history.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.