Telling the untold stories – Fellows’ seminar by Mignonne Breier

21 May 2018

“There have been moments in the history of the liberation struggle when, as Bishop Desmond Tutu famously put it to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, ‘things went horribly wrong’. The violence in Duncan Village, East London, in 1952, at the height of the African National Congress (ANC) Defiance Campaign, could be counted among such moments,” said Mignonne Breier.

Breier - 1
STIAS Fellow Mignonne Breier during her seminar presentation on 19 April 2018

Breier, who is from the Research Office at the University of Cape Town and is a current STIAS fellow, was presenting the details of her book project to STIAS fellows.

Breier started off researching the life of her mother – who lived and worked in mission schools in the Eastern Cape in this period – but quickly found herself investigating the murder of a nun and the cover-up of a massacre.

“Many historians don’t seem to know this story,” she said. “The events had profound political repercussions but have been largely ignored or downplayed in historical texts on that period.”

In the country at large the Nationalist government, which had come into power in 1948, was introducing law after law to entrench apartheid. The ANC was opposing those laws in a nationwide Defiance Campaign. The East London branch of the ANC, based in the township of Duncan Village, was one of the most active in the campaign.

“By the 1950s East London had almost equal numbers of blacks and whites but the land allocated for whites was 22 times larger than that allocated for blacks. The black population mostly lived in Duncan Village where there was overcrowding, high unemployment, a high infant mortality rate, many delinquent youth, and many single-female headed households, often surviving on illegal liquor sales and prostitution. There was also constant police harassment.”

“The Dominican order of the Catholic Church had a small mission in Duncan Village with a church, school and a clinic run by Sister Aidan Quinlan, a medical doctor, who also lived at the mission. She came from Cork in Ireland and had studied medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand.

On 9 November 1952 – which has come to be known as ‘Black Sunday’ – an open-air prayer meeting in Duncan Village, called by the ANC Youth League, was disrupted by police. In the violence that ensued, an untold number of black people were shot by police and two whites, Sister Aidan and an insurance salesman, Barend Vorster, were killed by separate breakaway mobs. The Catholic Mission buildings were burned to the ground.

“The official casualty figures were 10 dead (the two whites plus seven Africans and one Coloured man killed by the police) and 27 Africans wounded,” said Breier. “However, it is widely believed that the police killed far more than eight people. The numbers of the black people who died were never officially recorded or the records were subsequently lost or destroyed. The government of the time refused to hold a commission of inquiry and the matter did not come before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission because it preceded the 1960 cut-off date.”

“Sr. Aidan’s body was severely mutilated and there were allegations that parts of her body were consumed or used for muti. It is likely that the gross mutilation of the nun’s body rendered ‘Black Sunday’ unspeakable. But in failing to confront what happened that day, the deaths of scores of township residents at the hands of the police have been ignored,” continued Breier.

Eight people were put on trial for Sr. Aidan’s murder; two were found guilty and executed. In a separate trial, three were found guilty of Vorster’s murder. They were also executed. Four were found guilty of despoiling Sr. Aidan’s body and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment with ‘compulsory’ labour.

“The murder of Sr. Aidan is an event that has long been difficult in the telling,” said Breier. “It had profound repercussions – for the Defiance Campaign, for the ANC and for the country at large – and caused deep trauma for individuals, including members of the Duncan Village community and others who knew Sr. Aidan or learned of her death. The story was initially reported extensively in the media and then strange silences developed. Historical texts on that period of South Africa’s history barely mention the riots and her killing.”

“A former police officer, Donald Card – who was one of the main investigators in the Sr. Aidan murder case – has claimed since the 1970s that the police kept an informal record of deaths that they encountered or were reported to them and found that 214 people were killed. Unfortunately the exercise book in which they recorded the deaths was lost. If 214 people died it is the biggest police massacre in one event in South African history. Are we not able to memorialise those deaths because we simply don’t know the true numbers or because we can’t face what happened to the nun?”

Breier is hoping that her book will help to break those silences.

“It’s a hard story to tell but I hope to provide a fresh account of what happened that day, tell life stories of some of the key figures and record the many attempts by subsequent generations of Duncan Village residents to redeem their township.”

She believes this can make a contribution to the history of the liberation movement in South Africa, in particular the role of missions and missionaries in the struggle, “while also exploring the relationship between fear and racism, the intergenerational transmission of fear and guilt, and the meaning of forgiveness and reconciliation.”

“In this incident things went horribly wrong on both sides of the racial divide,” she said.

The leaders of the ANC Youth League in East London had obtained permission for the meeting the day before but were not permitted to attend themselves as they were banned. Afterwards the ANC denied responsibility and blamed the police for not allowing the leaders to attend the meeting where they could have controlled the crowd. Meanwhile, white hysteria in the wake of the incident gave the government an excuse to further tighten controls.

Breier pointed out that only on the 50th anniversary was a monument to Sr. Aidan erected at the mission in a ceremony involving the local community, the church and the ANC. “It was a huge gesture of sorrow and a request for forgiveness as well as an attempt to restore the image of Duncan Village.”

“History of the liberation struggle is most often about big men and their biographies,” she continued, “as if the struggle was faced by men only. We need to hear more about the role played by women. I think it’s also important to hear more accounts of the times when things went wrong.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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