The Sharpeville Massacre Radicalised Kwame Nkrumah


In the essay “Road to Ghana: Nkrumah, Southern Africa and the Eclipse of a Decolonizing Africa” Jeffrey S. Ahlman says Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah’s approach to the call to boycott South Africa, considered soft by some, was hardened by the events of Sharpeville on 21 March 1960 where the apartheid government killed 69 people and wounded approximately two hundred others. On 22 March 1961, Nkrumah called on world leaders to impose total economic and political sanctions against South Africa. 

As the first black-led, sub-Saharan state to emerge from colonial rule, the independence of Ghana was a watershed moment in twentieth-century Africa. Representing an idealized path to African self-rule, the Ghanaian model of decolonization appeared to outsiders as peaceful, democratic and orderly. And, compared to much of the rest of the continent, it largely was. The result was an unparalleled optimism both inside and outside the continent about what Ghana’s independence meant to the future of Africa and Africa’s place in the burgeoning post-war international community. In the months leading up to and for years following the country’s independence, African and non-African radicals and activists alike trekked to the Ghanaian capital of Accra, where they sought to take part in what many saw as an emerging continent-wide liberation movement. While in Accra, these activists and would-be Freedom Fighters set out to define the direction, institutions, and ambitions of an independent Africa, debating along the way issues ranging from the role of violence in the African anti-colonial struggle to questions over the threats posed by neo-colonial and Cold War influences in a decolonizing continent.5 By the end of 1960, the so-called ‘Year of Africa’, continent-wide independence appeared to be a foregone conclusion.

Ghanaian independence, “The Mecca of Pan Africanism” would not only offer revolutionaries from across the continent inspiration and motivation but Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, first as prime minister and president when Ghana became a republic,  would also offer material support and a venue from which they could organise and negotiate their future.

By 1960, when Ghana made its transition to a Republic, the country had evolved into a central staging ground for anti-colonial activists, exiles and asylum seekers on the continent.

That decolonization was to be a co-ordinated act of self-expression on the international stage drove Nkrumah’s worldview. Decolonization, and particularly that of Africa, was to be, at least in theory, a co-operative project for Nkrumah, one that linked the continent’s diverse colonies’ struggles together under the overarching umbrella of African liberation and African unity.

As international attention to the problem of apartheid intensified in the years between 1958 and 1961, South African activists and exiles emerged as one of the most prominent groups of expatriates in the Accra Freedom Fighter community. As the apartheid government dug in its heels, the economic boycott emerged as the preferred tool of protest. Ghana and West Africa more broadly were to ‘set an example [for the world] by boycotting South African foodstuffs, eggs, tinned fruit, wine, and other products from the Union.

The call for a boycott of South African goods put the Nkrumah government in a difficult position. At the 1958 AAPC, the continent’s nationalist leaders had unequivocally supported the action with the Conference’s governing body writing the boycott into the event’s resolutions.

The siting of the AAPC’s Permanent Secretariat in Accra put even more pressure on Nkrumah and his Cabinet to conform to the Conference’s resolutions as they devised the new state’s foreign policy. The Nkrumah government, however, hedged its bets as international interests and instrumental concerns subverted anti-colonial activism and perceived burgeoning continental solidarity. Seeking to soften his image outside of Africa from that of a radical revolutionary to one of a responsible statesman, Nkrumah appeared to many to have sided with the British and American governments in debates over the ‘South African Question.’ Suggesting at the 1957 Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference that key international forums such as Commonwealth meetings were not ideal for debates over apartheid, Nkrumah promoted a passive approach in dealing with the South African government, one that emphasized the international collective’s ability to encourage the apartheid regime into a gradual softening of its policies.

This hands-off approach to South Africa also had repercussions at home in Ghana as, in an attempt to protect what it saw as its growing influence in the international community, the Nkrumah administration openly chastised elements within its own political wings for advocating the boycott in the press and on the radio.

Domestic interests also featured prominently in the Ghanaian reaction to the proposed South African boycott. Rapid development and industrial modernization was integral to the envisioned Nkrumahist way of life. Inside Ghana, Nkrumah envisaged a wholesale re-invention of Ghanaian industry, commerce and infrastructure. Still unrivalled today, his plans included investments in transportation, electrification, telecommunication, agriculture, education and healthcare. This state-run infrastructural and industrial program was to fuel economic expansion and ensure the country’s political and economic independence.

Yet Ghanaian modernization required substantial (primarily western) subsidies. Furthermore, the hallmark of Nkrumah’s development agenda – the Volta River Project – was inextricably linked to British and, after 1957, American capital.

The inconsistencies between Nkrumah’s rhetoric and actions were a cause of consternation throughout the continental anti-colonial community. For instance, Nkrumah’s unwillingness to support the South African boycott was a subject of widespread debate at the 1960 All-African People’s Conference (AAPC) in Tunis. ‘Speakers after speakers [sic] directly and indirectly attacked Ghana on its lukewarm policy towards the boycotting of South African goods,’ A.K. Barden complained in his post-Conference report to Nkrumah.

Meanwhile, as the Ghanaian government debated the role and framework of the boycott in the country’s foreign policy, the ANC and PAC each battled to position themselves as the legitimate voice of the South African movement in Accra. Speaking for the ANC, Alfred Hutchinson attempted to use the contacts he had made at the 1958 AAPC and in Accra’s Freedom Fighter community to delegitimize the PAC in the halls of the Ghanaian government. Characterizing the PAC as a party comprised of ‘radicals’ and ‘extremists’, Hutchinson presented the longstanding ANC as South Africa’s sole responsible alternative; it was only the ANC, he and others suggested, that was ready and willing to work with anyone – African, European, or otherwise – committed to advancing the South African struggle.

PAC leaders, for their part, began to make their way out of South Africa in early 1960. Led by Peter Molotsi and Nana Mahomo, who left South Africa together on 20 March 1960 just a day before the Sharpeville Massacre, the PAC set up missions in Accra, Dar es Salaam, Cairo, London and in several other metropolitan and extra-metropolitan locales.

PAC leaders would come to play an active role in the Accra Freedom Fighter community, as they worked for institutions such as the Ghanaian Bureau of African Affairs (BAA) and lobbied the Nkrumah government for financial and military support. As such, by the end of 1960, they had become some of the most influential exiles in Accra, moulding Nkrumah’s and the Ghanaian government’s understandings not only of events in South Africa, but also and perhaps more importantly, of the issues shaping the southern African region as

The massacre at Sharpeville was a turning point in the Ghanaian understanding of the South African conflict. On 21 March 1960, during an anti-pass rally organized by the PAC, South African police officials opened fire on a crowd of unarmed protesters in the township of Sharpeville, killing sixty-nine people and wounding approximately two hundred others. The international response to the incident was vehement. Even some of the South African government’s most reliable allies felt as if they had no choice but to reproach the apartheid regime.

Sharpeville radicalized Nkrumah himself. In early 1960, his faith in the ‘Ghanaian’ model of decolonization was already beginning to sour. In Nkrumah’s mind, as the so-called ‘Year of Africa’ began to take shape, political compromise and negotiation were proving too uncertain a path to the political independence the Ghanaian leader desired. This was particularly evident in his view of Francophone Africa, where Nkrumah believed that a set of puppet governments controlled from Paris were subverting the nationalist ambitions of the countries’ ‘true’ anti-colonial parties.46 In other locales, particularly in southern and North Africa, settler rule was proving increasingly intractable, initiating a gradual rethinking of the methods of anti-colonial resistance.

From the perspective of Accra, the post-Sharpeville world required a new, more forceful approach to not only the South African problem, but that of all of southern Africa. Inside South Africa, the apartheid government responded to the incident in Sharpeville with a radical crackdown on African political activities in the country. Both the ANC and the PAC were banned and the majority of the two parties’ leaders were imprisoned or exiled.


Full Essay Is Here http://repository.uwc.ac.za/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10566/1016/AhlmanRoadtoGhana2011.pdf?sequence=1

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