On March 21, 1960, the Pan Africanist Congress party organised a protest at Sharpeville in Transvaal, South Africa. It was protesting the apartheid government’s pass laws, which required South African blacks to carry pass books (internal passports) and restricted their movement by handing in the pass books to the police. The crowd grew to about 5,000 to 7,000 people and protest turned deadly when police opened fire on the unarmed crowd, killing 69 people and injuring 178.
Peter Magubane covered the protests for Drum magazine. He had began working at the magazine as a driver in 1954 while he was still in his twenties, with his first photographic assignment to cover the annual meeting of the as-yet un-banned African National Congress the following year. But his editor, formidable Tom Hopkinson, who joined Drum after leaving the Picture Post, was not pleased with his photos:
“There are no close-ups. You have pictures but you don’t have pictures that will sell the paper. I would have loved to see a picture going through one’s bone. I would have loved to see a picture cracking someone’s skull. I would have loved to see a picture of spectacles lying there, and in the background you have some of the dead people.
Magubane noted that he was shocked by the violence. Hopkinson replied, “Get the pictures first, then you get shocked.” Magubane noted, “he was right! From that day I made up my mind that I shall think of my pictures first before anything. I no longer get shocked. I am a feelingless beast while taking photographs.”
When the funeral for some victims of the Sharpeville Massacre was held on March 29, 1960, he was ready. It was a major event, attended by thousands of mourners and marked by a high level of emotion and anger. Magubane produced a dark, vivid picture story, which like the funeral itself, became powerful symbols of the struggle against Apartheid and the brutality of the regime.
Sharpeville marked a turning point in the anti-apartheid struggle, leading to increased radicalization and militarization of the movement, and led to a significant shift in international perspectives, with many countries beginning to take a more critical stance against the South African government.