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10 of the Worst Massacres in African History


A massacre is defined as a brutal slaughter of people, or deliberately and violently killing a large number of people. Massacres are some of the most atrocious acts of human beings, but sadly they’re a reality in our world. Nations all around the world have been subject to some of the most brutal mass killings in history, including places like Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Afghanistan, Mexico, and the United States. Africa is another place that has been home to some of the worst massacres in history, including genocides of entire groups of people by way of bombings, fires, poison, guillotine, shootings, stabbings, lynchings, and many other ways. From church shootings to political protests gone awry, these massacres are some that stand out as the worst massacres in African history.

1. Leliefontein Massacre (January 31, 1902)

The Leliefontein Massacre occurred in the Northern Cape, South Africa at the Leliefontein mission station. Manie Maritz, the Boer leader, executed 35 Khoikhoi people living on the land as punishment for attacking his party when he went into town to interview European missionaries during the Second Boer War. Maritz was ambushed on his way there and took revenge by murdering the Khoikhoi people.

The homes of missionaries were destroyed in the aftermath. Field marshal Jan Smuts decided not to take action against Maritz. This revenge attack left the town isolated. Smuts wasn’t happy when he returned to the site of the massacre, which is why it baffles most why he didn’t want, nor take revenge.

2. Sharpeville Massacre (March 21, 1960)—Sharpeville, South Africa

Since the 18th century, South African governments had enacted measures to restrict the flow of black South Africans into cities. Sharpeville Massacre occurred at the police station in the South African township of Sharpeville in Transvaal (which is now part of Gauteng). It started with a day of demonstrations against laws that had recently passed. A crowd of about 5,000 to 7,000 African protesters marched to the police station in a rage, offering up their own arrests for not carrying passbooks. The South African police were not prepared for what was happening since they had already forced smaller groups of militant activists away the night before.

The atmosphere was peaceful to begin with and some say it was festive. No more than 20 police officers were there. However, as the crowd grew to about 20,000, the ambiance had shifted, provoking an additional 130 police reinforcements. As an F-86 Sabre jet hovered over the crowd, protesters began throwing rocks at it, which prompted police to respond with gunfire. South African police opened fire, killing 69 people. Some sources say the crowd was behaving violently, hurling stones at the police, moving them steadily. Other reports say the crowd was peaceful. Currently, in South Africa, March 21 is celebrated as a public holiday to commemorate the events of the Sharpeville Massacre and in honor of human rights.

3. Wagalla Massacre (Feb 10, 1984)—Wagalla Airstrip, Wajir County, Kenya

The Wagalla Massacre began as an effort to disarm the ethnic Degodia clan after some clan-related conflict in the region of Kenyan-Somalis. Abdirizak Nur Mohmed was forced to lie on the ground of the Wagalla Airstrip in northeast Kenya. He was rounded up with a bunch of other men in Wajir as he was leaving for school. He was then put on a military truck and delivered he and the group of men to the airstrip, where they were without food and water.

At night, the men were forced to remove their clothes and during the day, they were forced to lie down on the scorching hot ground. The Kenyan government only reported the official number dead as 57, but many eyewitnesses claim that roughly 5,000 people were killed. The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission stated that close to 1,000 people were killed in Wagalla, but they also stated that they weren’t able to determine the precise number of people killed.

4. Boipatong Massacre (June 17, 1992)—Boipatong, South Africa

The Boipatong Massacre took place in the township of Boipatong, South Africa one night. Armed men from the steelworks residence KwaMadala Hostel attacked 45 township residents. All 45 residents died and several were maimed. These armed men were supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party, a rival party of the African National Congress (ANC). The massacre happened at a time when the South African government and other political groups were negotiating in the Congress for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) talks.

After the massacre, it was suggested that the South African police force in cooperation with the IFP had organized and carried out the raid and that, as a result, the ANC backed out of the negotiations. They resumed negotiations shortly after the Bisho Massacre. In 1993, a criminal trial convicted IFP supporters for their crimes in the massacre, but the trial concluded that the police had played no part in it.

5. Bisho Massacre--Bisho, Ciskei, South Africa (September 7, 1992)

The Bisho Massacre occurred in the independent homeland of Ciskei in South Africa. During a protest march, the Ciskei Defence Force shot 28 African National Congress supporters and one soldier when they tried to enter Bisho (now Bhisho) to demand the reincorporation of Ciskei into South Africa during the last years of the apartheid. The protest saw about 80,000 people gathered outside of Bisho in opposition to Joshua Oupa Gqozo’s rule.

Led by senior ANC leaders, including the South African Communist Party Secretary General Chris Hani, Cyril Ramaphosa, Steven Tshwete and Ronnie Kasrils, the protesters tried to break through the Ciskei Defence force lines. The Ciskei Defence Force not only killed the 28 marchers and one soldier, but also injured more than 200 people. More than 425 rounds were fired, ordered by Colonel Vakele Archibald Mkosana, who erroneously told his commanders via radio that his troops were under fire and that he was given permission to return fire.

6. St. James Church Massacre (July 25, 1993)—Cape Town, SA

The Saint James Church massacre occurred in Kenilworth, Cape Town, South Africa. On that day, four terrorists of the Azanian People’s Liberation Army killed 11 members of the congregation at Saint James Church and wounded 58. Sichumiso Nonxuba, Bassie Mkhumbuzi, Gcinikhaya Makoma and Tobela Mlambisa arrived at the Anglican church in a stolen vehicle and Nonxuba commanded the group to march into the church armed with M26 hand grenades and R4 assault rifles.

The terrorists then threw grenades and opened fire on the congregation. One member of the congregation returned fire. Charl van Wyk, who later wrote a book about the shooting, returned fire with his own .38 special revolver, wounding the gunmen. The gunmen then fled the church, abandoning their plans to throw four petrol bombs in the church after the shooting.

7. Shell House Massacre (March 28, 1994)—Johannesburg, SA

The Shell House Massacre took place at the African National Congress (ANC) in central Johannesburg, South Africa leading up to the 1994 elections. About 20,000 Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) supporters marched to Shell House to protest the 1994 elections that they planned to boycott. ANC security guards opened fire on the crowd, killing 19 people, claiming that the IFP supporters were storming the building or that they had gotten tipped off that this was planned.

This incident was what triggered the subsequent state of emergency across eleven magisterial districts in the East Rand and the whole Kwazulu-Natal province. The ANC and President Mandela, in June of 1995, claimed that he was given the order to defend Shell House, despite the fact that it meant killing people. Willem Ratte filed a complaint against the president for murder at the police headquarters in Pretoria, accusing him of committing the Shell House murders.

8. Luxor Massacre (November 17, 1997)—Luxor, Egypt

During the Luxor Massacre, six young men dressed in black police uniforms, carrying vinyl bags entered the ancient temple of Queen Hatshepsut just before nine in the morning. One of the men shot a guard and then the group of men put on red headbands that identified them as members of the Islamic Group. Two men were posted at the gate to wait for the police shoot-out that was sure to come.

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However, the police never came. The remaining men crisscrossed throughout the temple grounds, instantly killing tourists, shooting some in the legs. Then, methodically, as many put it, the men finished them off with close headshots. The terrorists then began stabbing some of the bodies with butcher knives. One Japanese tourists was eviscerated and later, a pamphlet was found stuffed in his body that read, “No tourists in Egypt,” signed “Omar Abdul Rahman’s Squadron of Havoc and Destruction—The Gam’a al-Islamiyya, the Islamic Group.”

9. Piet Retief Delegation Massacre (February 1838)

When Voortrekkers under Piet Retief migrated into Natal in 1837 to negotiate a land treaty with the Zulu King Dingane, unfortunately, Dingane decided to double-cross the Voortrekkers, killing 100 of them, including their leader Piet Retief on February 6. The land treaty was later found in Piet Retief’s possession and showed that it gave the Voortrekkers the land between the Tugela River and Port St. Johns. This eventually led to the Battle of Blood River and the defeat of the Zulu King Dingane.

Ignoring warnings, Retief left the Tugela in hopes that he could negotiate with the king for permanent boundaries for the Natal settlement. When Dingane invited Retief’s party to see a special performance by his soldiers, Dingane ordered his soldiers to capture Retief and his servants. Retief, his servants, his men and his son were all taken to a nearby ridge and the Zulus killed the entire group, saving Retief for last so he could witness the murders. After Retief and his family’s death, they were buried on December 21, 1838 after Andries Pretorius and his party discovered their remains.

10. The African Holocaust—c.1600—1800

A holocaust is a slaughter on a mass scale, usually defined by a series of atrocities organized by one social group against another. Africans and their descendants have had similar experiences as victims of the Holocaust and other victims of mass slaughters. These experiences included slave labor, mass incarceration, dehumanization, torture, discrimination, mass murder, lynchings, race riots, stolen property, and medical experimentation.

The African Holocaust consisted of between 10 and 12 million African men, women and children being taken from their homes and forced to march as far as 1,000 miles to the sea. They were then placed in underground dungeons for up to one year. Once removed from these dungeons, they would be packed below decks as cargo on 54,000 slave ships to America. They would be subject to horrible living conditions aboard these ships, including lying in each other’s feces, urine and vomit during the 2-4 month trip. Called “The Middle Passage,” these trips consisted of one of the greatest forced migrations in world history. What followed was the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and Jim Crow. Other factors rooted from the Middle Passage also contributed to the death of as many as 100 million African people over the course of several thousand years, making the African Holocaust one of the worst massacres in not only African, but world history.


Wood, William (1840). "An Eyewitness Account of the Massacre of Retief". Statements respecting Dingaan, king of the Zulus. Collard & Co. Retrieved 2008-01-04.

Stander, Eerw. P.P. Dingaanstat: Die Graf van Piet Retief en Sy Sewentig Burgers.

Kaplan, Irving. Area Handbook for the Republic of South Africa. p. 603.

"The Sharpeville Massacre". Time Magazine. 4 April 1960. Retrieved 15 December 2006.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Shanea Patterson

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