Massacres under an apartheid state

May 22, 2018

In an article written for the Australian socialist newspaper Red Flag, Mick Armstrong looks at the parallels between apartheid South Africa and apartheid Israel.

ON MARCH 21, 1960, the apartheid state of South Africa carried out one of its most notorious massacres, unleashing murderous fire on 5,000 Blacks gathered outside the police station in Sharpeville. They were protesting against the racist Pass Laws, which severely restricted the movement of Black Africans. Sixty-three were killed and more than 360 injured.

Almost 60 years later, another apartheid regime has carried out a similar massacre on the Gaza border. Israeli soldiers unleashed a merciless barrage of fire on a crowd of 40,000 protesters, who were demanding the right of return to the homes from which their families had been driven by Zionist terror gangs in 1948. More than 60 were killed and hundreds more wounded.

I was only nine at the time of Sharpeville. But I remember it well because the news of the massacre sent my father into a furious and indignant rage against the apartheid state. That was not, however, the response of the Australian Liberal government of the time.

Years later, in the wake of the overthrow of the white South African regime, Liberal politicians scrambled to make out that they had always opposed apartheid. Nelson Mandela, who they had previously condemned as a communist and a terrorist, now was lauded as an icon of nonviolence and moderation.

Fleeing police gunfire in Sharpeville, South Africa in 1960
Fleeing police gunfire in Sharpeville, South Africa in 1960

Former Prime Minister John Howard attempted to rewrite history by claiming in his memoirs that his hero, Robert Menzies, prime minister at the time of Sharpeville, was an opponent of apartheid. The actual record is very different.

In response to public pressure to condemn the massacre, Menzies retreated into legalistic pedantry: “One government does not interfere in matters which are within the domestic jurisdiction of another. That is a matter of profound importance.”

Even after the Tory-dominated British House of Commons voted to condemn South Africa’s “racialist policies,” Menzies declared that any Australian comment would “exacerbate a state of affairs (in South Africa) which is already sufficiently menacing.” Then, in a speech in parliament, Menzies welcomed an official enquiry by the racist regime because it would present an “authoritative account of the facts”.

When, in the aftermath of Sharpeville, South Africa was forced out of the British Commonwealth, Menzies stated that he was “deeply saddened.” “Apartheid, which has been the accepted policy of South African governments...never previously [has] been brought up at a prime ministers’ conference.”

Little wonder that the South African prime minister of the time, and key architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, described Menzies “as perhaps the best friend South Africa has.”


THE SOUTH African government, very much like the Israeli authorities today, defended the Sharpeville massacre as necessary to put down a riot and a rebellion. The racist regime denounced the devilish “communists” of the recently formed Pan Africanist Congress (a split from the African National Congress) headed by Robert Sobukwe for supposedly provoking the massacre.

Australian acting minister for external affairs Garfield Barwick echoed this theme, condemning the Australian Labour Party’s (ALP) call for the imposition of a trade boycott on the apartheid regime because it would create “a climate suitable for communist subversion.”

Copying from the same playbook, the Israeli government today blames the Gaza massacre — which it carefully planned and ordered — on Hamas provocation. Malcolm Turnbull disgracefully rushed to endorse that lie.

Turnbull’s and foreign minister Julie Bishop’s apologetics for the mass murders by apartheid Israel, and their claims that this was just Israel “defending itself” and “protect[ing] its population,” is utterly appalling. Tony Abbott went further, calling for Australia to copy Donald Trump and move its embassy to Jerusalem.

The “even-handed” stance of Bill Shorten’s Labor Party was little better.

The South African government, which recognizes an apartheid regime when it sees one, has withdrawn its ambassador from Israel. European governments have been highly critical of the massacre. New Zealand Labour prime minister Jacinda Ardern slammed Israel for a “devastating, one-sided loss of life.”

What was Shorten’s response? A pathetic call for “restraint on all sides.” So the Israeli army should fire only half as many bullets? Kill only a third as many unarmed protesters?

The ALP’s shameful response to the Gaza massacre also compares incredibly badly with Labor’s outraged reaction back in 1960 to the equivalent horror at Sharpeville. The Labor leader at the time, Arthur Calwell, was no raving radical and had a pretty dubious track record, to say the least, on racial issues.

But to give Calwell his due, even before Sharpeville, Labor had been campaigning for the Australian government to impose a trade boycott on the apartheid regime. Then, in response to the massacre, the Labor opposition moved a motion in parliament declaring outrage at the shootings, censuring the Australian government for its weak-kneed attitude to apartheid and calling for a trade boycott.

Nothing “even handed” about that — and rightly so. South Africa was an appalling, racist apartheid state. Israel today is an appalling, racist apartheid state. It deserves the same condemnation and treatment.

First published at Red Flag.

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Latest Stories

From the archives