SA’s secret massacre
Durban - In a book called Bloody Sunday, KZN-born academic and author has brought to light a lesser-known apartheid massacre that was more deadly than Sharpeville, and occured eight years earlier.
Between 80 and 200 people are believed to have been killed by police that day, after a meeting organised by the African National Congress Youth League. Two white people, including a Roman Catholic nun, were killed by mobs in retaliation. Yet few people know what happened, says author Mignonne Breier.
“It has not become part of the national discourse,” she told the Independent on Saturday in a telephone interview from Cape Town, where she is based at UCT.
The events took place on November 9, 1952, at the height of the ANC’s Defiance Campaign.
Strangely, neither the National Party, which was four years into being in power, nor the ANC wanted the event highlighted.
The 38-year-old nun, Sister Aidan Quinlan, who was Irish and a medical doctor living and working in Duncan Village, was attacked in her car and burnt after police shot into the crowd at the meeting. Parts of her body were dismembered, either to be eaten or used as muti, or both.
“The ANC took no responsibility for any of the riots that happened. They said agents provocateur were responsible,
The topic of Sister Aidan became “too unbearable to speak about,” she added.
Reluctant to mention the word “cannibalism”, she explores the topic from an anthropological angle, noting that it has been practised in various forms in many societies, including influencing rituals such as holy communion in Christianity.
The book also explains the inequality between desperate, crowded Duncan Village and well-serviced white East London with ample space. The nuns who founded a mission there in 1928 described the “location” as “an accumulation of hovels and streets that teemed with children who brought themselves up without parental control, living in squalor and dirt”.
What triggered Kokstad-born Breier to end up sinking her teeth into researching an incident that happened too early during apartheid to be looked into by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and two years before she was born?
When opening her mother’s Bible in 2013, 20 years after her death, Breier discovered newspaper cuttings about Sister Aidan and the riots.
Her parents had been missionary teachers before moving to Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) from Mfundisweni, near Kokstad but in today’s Eastern Cape, when Breier was two years old.
Before the move, her mother, Margot Crozier, had changed “from someone who enjoyed mission life to someone who resented that my father had ever taken her to the ”back of beyond“, as she put it.
“She warned me against following suit or doing ‘good works’ in what were then called ‘the locations’.”
Breier wrote, quoting her mother: “You will be the first to be killed.”
“One day, to drive home the point, she told me about a nun who was burnt to death. She didn’t provide details but her veiled remarks were enough to ensure that the image of a flaming woman in a nun’s habit would haunt my dreams from time to time and restrain me from crossing the valley that separated our part of white Grahamstown from the black townships.”
Breier said she made the link between her mother and Sister Aidan after discovering the clippings. She believed they would have known one another.
Breier then visited Mfundisweni where her parents would have been the day Sister Aidan was killed.
“The Defiance Campaign had made people anxious,” she said. “Some missionaries were asked to leave their stations and live in the towns but my parents lived on a cottage on a hill. My mother talked about students marching up the hill as they protested. She was terrified.
“Later, doing research, I realised that the mission school food riots that my parents talked about and had led to a building being burnt down, were happening at the same time as the students’ parents were protesting in the Defiance Campaign (against apartheid laws)”.
Africans were particularly bitter at the time about having such a raw deal back home after having served in the two World Wars.
The Duncan Village Defiance Campaign meeting, for which police prepared themselves by bringing in isiZulu-speaking reinforcements from Durban, had taken place on the same day as a Remembrance Day service ‒ reserved for whites ‒ in nearby East London.
Breier believed her parents would have travelled to Kokstad from Mfundisweni to attend such services, her mother having lost two brothers in World War II.
Visiting the town of her birth for her research, Breier said she found copies of the Kokstad Advertiser for 1952 tucked in a cupboard in the Kokstad Museum.
“The Kokstad Remembrance Day service was the front page lead and described in great detail. (I read that) various detachments and cadets marched past, a beautiful plaque was unveiled, the last post was sounded and after two minutes silence the reveille.
“The ceremony, the newspaper concluded, was ‘moving in its simplicity’.”
Then she turned to the inside pages and found a letter from an “Old Soldier” who noted that there were not enough hymn sheets and, although “non-European” soldiers “gave their service and their lives in the war” (and one member of the Indian and Malay Corps and three of the Cape Corps were listed in the Roll of Honour, I might add) ‘all the seats were labelled ‘Europeans only’.”
Later, Breier found that one of Native Military Corps is buried at the Mfundisweni Mission Cemetery.
“I am touched by the detail on the Commonwealth Graves Commission website: Corporal V Bungani, of the Native Military Corps, son of Pringle and Manala Dklavu, it says. I wonder who remembered him on that fateful day in 1952 and how they honoured him?”
Breier said that if she did any more significant writing in future, she would like it to be about the forgotten black soldiers of the two World Wars.
“Every city (in South Africa) has the potential to look into that side of World War I and World War II.”
“Many of us who grew up during apartheid learnt the history of the Great Trek and the unification of Germany but we don’t know a lot about what happened in South Africa in the 20th century. It’s not a bad idea to remind ourselves of this when resentments and grievances began.”
Today, she sees Duncan Village filled with despair.
“Young people hungry and with nothing to do, sewerage running in the streets, litter in heaps. I am continually struck by it every time I am back there. It’s the same but with technology added in.”
Breier hopes Bloody Sunday will serve as a memory of the many Black people who died on December 9, 1952, in Duncan Village, many of whose deaths are not documented because they were buried informally, as was common practice, but also amid the chaos of a frightened community in which the living feared arrest.
- Bloody Sunday: The nun, the Defiance Campaign and SA’s secret massacre
The Independent on Saturday