Gauteng was an important centre of the freedom struggle against apartheid. It is here that the Sharpeville massacre; the 1976 Soweto riots; as well as the Rivonia trial, in which many struggle leaders, including Nelson Mandela, were sent to jail for more than 20 years, took place. Today, these and other important events in the struggle against apartheid are shown in the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg.

Since the 1920s, the movements of black South Africans had been restricted by pass laws. Leading up to the Sharpeville massacre, the apartheid-supporting National Party government under the leadership of Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd used these laws to enforce greater segregation and, in 1959-1960, extended them to include women. From the 1960s, the pass laws were the primary instrument used by the state to arrest and harass its political opponents. By the same token, it was mainly the popular resistance, mobilised against those pass laws, that kept resistance politics alive during this period.

The African National Congress (ANC) had decided to launch a campaign of protests against pass laws. These protests were to begin on 31 March 1960, but the rival Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) decided to pre-empt the ANC by launching its own campaign ten days earlier, on 21 March, because they believed that the ANC could not win the campaign.