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In a protest organised by the PAC on March 21, a group of between 5000 and 7000 people converged on the local police station, offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying their pass books. During the ensuing confrontation 69 people were killed, and over 180 injured. It is debated whether or not the police attack was provoked. Most of those killed and injured were women and children; the photographs taken at various places in Sharpeville at the time of the massacre show no sign of any weapon which might have caused the police to open fire on the protestors. The statements of Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar showed that the mere gathering of blacks was taken as a provocation: "The Native mentality does not allow them to gather for a peaceful demonstration. For them to gather means violence."
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On the other hand, the Times article describing the Sharpeville massacre stated that there was a desultory shooting in the morning of the day on which the massacre happened and that this later prompted crowds to stone the police vehicles, at which point the police fired on them. The Times article also added that the young police officers, shocked by the carnage they had created, rushed to help casualties into the ambulances. It might therefore be concluded that the cause of the Sharpeville massacre was caused not only because the government was oppressive, but also because of the inexperience of the police officers present which caused them to lose control of the situation and start firing on the crowd. Had the South African government taken the line that it was just a tragic accident that could have been avoided by putting properly trained police officers on the front line, it is quite possible that the international fallout from the incident would have been negligible.

The uproar among blacks was immediate, and the following week saw demonstrations, protest marches, strikes, and riots around the country. On March 30, 1960, the government declared a state of emergency, detaining more than 18,000 people. A storm of international protest followed the Sharpeville shootings, including condemnation by the United Nations. On April 1 1960, the United Nations Security Council sat to "consider seriously the apartheid colonial oppression of the African people in South Africa". Sharpeville marked a turning point in South Africa's history; the country found itself increasingly isolated in the international community. The Sharpeville massacre led to the banning of the ANC and PAC and was one of the catalysts for the foundation of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, and Poqo, the military wing of the PAC.