Saturday, 13 September 2008

Massacres of the Twentieth Centry

While in a black and bitter mood today, I took to reflecting on the massacres that characterized the 20th Century. The Turks of the Armenians, Hitler’s Holocaust, Stalin’s of the kulaks, the Sharpeville massacre of blacks in South Africa, through to Pol Pot and Rwanda.

All have taken their place in the pantheon of misery and scandals of that terrible century. Which was the worst, which the most indefensible? Well, we have the word of former Liberian President Charles Tubman. In his considered judgment, Sharpeville was, quote "the vilest, most reckless and unconscionable action in history." Countless others had similar assessments

Now normally, the opinion of an African President is sufficient for me. And I do remember how my anti-Apartheid activities of the seventies were fuelled by this possibly most terrible outrage. But still, I felt I'd need to verify this one.

Before I do that though, can I ask if you’ve ever heard of the Cato Manor Massacre?


I didn’t think so.

Well, in 1960 at Cato Manor near Durban a large crowd of hostile blacks, outraged over the Pass Laws and other grievances, surrounded the local police station. Despite warnings from the police, they over-ran the station and massacred, in the most brutal and gruesome fashion, the nine officers manning it.

Move on a few weeks to Sharpeville, near Johannesburg. In this instance.... now let me avail of the cut/paste facility here “a large crowd of hostile blacks, outraged over the Pass Laws and other grievances, surrounded the local police station.” Now I'm just speculating here, but just possibly, the fate of their colleagues in Cato Manor might have crossed their minds as the mob swelled.

As in all such cases, what started the subsequent shooting is in dispute. One side says that shots rang out from the crowd, the other that the police fire was totally unprovoked. What is certain is that many if not most of the victims were shot in the back.

What is equally certain is that the head of the police there, Colonel Pienaar (was every Apartheid-era police colonel call Pienaar?), who was totally unapologetic about the whole thing, was adamant he gave no order to fire. No policeman acknowledged hearing such an order. The Rwandan Machete Season was textbook planning by comparison.

So if it wasn’t planned, as any massacre worthy of the name should be, how did it measure up in terms of numbers killed?

70,000? Lower

7,000? Lower

700? Lower

70? Lower

In fact 69 people were killed at Sharpeville. Deeply regrettable, for sure, but, Jesus, how does this stack up against the others, or as "the vilest, most reckless and unconscionable action in history?" Former Texas Governor GW Bush would have signed as many death warrants on a good day at the office. An estimated 2 million have been killed in the Congo’s recent civil wars, while tens of thousands have been killed in massacres by Sudanese militiamen in Darfur.

Why then did it achieve, and still hold, iconic status?

Beats me.

But wait – I know!

It was carried by whites.

Of course. Silly me.


doodler said...

Well said Savant. I knew the history, but strangely enough, never put the two incidents together - so learned something new today.
Interestingly the Cato Manor incident arose from the fact that the Zulus got upset with the Indian shopkeepers who apparently ripped them off whenever they could. And still today, there is a virulent hatred for the Indians. A year or two ago, some black singer released a record (in Zulu) which rapidly became a hit. The central theme of the song? The Indians are cheating us and they must be killed...history repeats itself.

SAVANT said...

Doodler, I can just imagine if the races had been reversed, what a hue and cry there'd be. I have to say that in my dealings with Indians I found them peacable but very low down on the honesty stakes. So the Zulus probably had a point.

SAVANT said...

PS - doodler. I'm surprised the Cato Manor connection didn't strike you. I put myself in the position of a policemen at Sharpeville (now I admittedly come from a long line of cowards) but CM would have been uppermost in my mind, I think. Remember it happened only a few weeks previously. said...

Ludicrous Diversion - London 7/7/05
Within minutes of beginning this documentary you will realize that you have been had by the British government and police and media.