Mignonne Breier, Bloody Sunday: The Nun, the Defiance Campaign and South Africa’s Secret Massacre (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2021)

THE BROAD sweep of apartheid history is well-known and debated. But there remain many silences, particularly around peripheral parts of the country. This is ironic in the case of the Eastern Cape, which was at the forefront of resistance. One such silence, now filled by Mignonne Breier in her thoroughly researched, carefully presented and clearly written account is the massacre of Remembrance Sunday, 9 November, 1952 at Duncan Village, East London during the ANC’s Defiance Campaign.

Breier has produced an exemplary piece of historical research that probes deeply into what was probably the worst one-day massacre in South Africa’s history. In doing so, specific details aside, she describes a range of behaviours that were to be repeated time and again by the apartheid regime; and even after its demise as the Marikana massacre would testify. On the Sunday afternoon police ordered the dispersal of a gathering of 800 people at Bantu Square that started with hymns and prayers, but had clear political purpose. Participants not only refused to leave, but behaved aggressively. The police waded in with batons, bayonets and live ammunition and eight people died.

This unleashed mob violence in which youths went on the rampage killing two whites: a Dominican nun and doctor who ran the local clinic, Sister Aidan (Elsie Quinlan from Cork), and an insurance salesman, Barend Vorster; then burning and destroying property. Church and educational buildings were a specific target. Putting a cordon around Duncan Village, the police indulged in their own night-time riot in which at least 200 people, possibly more, died.

The three East London locations were a monument to municipal neglect. The Thornton Commission of 1937 had highlighted an infant mortality rate of 50%, gross overcrowding and a sanitary catastrophe. As a result Duncan Village was built alongside East Bank Location, but only a fifth of a projected 3 000 dwellings were constructed. Location people nevertheless rose above their dire circumstances through church, sport and music: Breier describes East Bank as the Sophiatown of the Eastern Cape. An ANC Youth League branch became active and the community scored a victory after peaceful demonstrations and a boycott forced withdrawal of the lodgers’ tax. The Defiance Campaign arose from the ANC’s Programme of Action and focused in particular on the pass laws. Defiance and consequent arrests were at their height in the Eastern Cape after the campaign’s official start on 26 June 1952.

Such is the background to Bloody Sunday, Bantu Square, Duncan Village. There were seven main actors: the police, the ANC, the mutating crowd, the white municipality, the press, amaRoma (the Roman Catholic Church), and finally the legal system; and their overlapping dynamics. Breier skilfully unravels these complexities and then looks helpfully at the legacy of events of nearly 70 years ago.

There is every reason to believe that the police were spoiling for a fight. Numbering over one hundred, they were brought in from outside, even as far away as Durban, and were armed with Sten guns and .303 rifles with bayonets. Whether they could have saved Sister Aidan from her burning car is an open question, but they did nothing to secure the scene of her attack. The subsequent massacre was audible in East London and detective Donald Card listening to the indiscriminate gunfire and its duration (some have suggested it lasted all night) thought that at least 200 people must have died. Police blocked press access to the hospital, many bodies were quickly and quietly buried, and some were even transported to the Transkei. The true casualty rate will never be known, but it prompted an exodus of 5 000 people. At a subsequent funeral a reporter witnessed provocative behaviour by some policemen. Baruch Hirson’s suggestion that policy was one of ‘shooting into submission’ bears credence.

The ANC believed that the meeting was legal, but its local leadership had just been banned. One of them, Alcott Gwentshe, had ironically been orphaned at the Bulhoek massacre near Komani of 1921. (He was later banished to Frenchdale.) This removed those with real authority to command the crowd, a frequent duplicitous tactic of the authorities. Walter Sisulu and other leaders were also in East London that weekend but left hurriedly, probably fearing arrest. The massacre effectively ended the Defiance Campaign.

In spite of the destruction, Catholic teaching and services soon resumed. Whether Sister Aidan was dead before her car was set alight could not be established; complicated by the fact that her body was mutilated. This was for muti and within local custom. But there is evidence, supported by the author’s interview with a witness who was then 15, that there was cannibalism, which was taboo. Breier raises the intriguing possibility that this could have been linked to misinterpretation of the Catholic belief in transubstantiation. The murder, attacks on church property and the history of some of the perpetrators all suggest anti-Catholic sentiment; although whether Sister Aidan can be regarded a martyr is moot. She took an unusual and dangerous route home that afternoon, so may simply be regarded as having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Coincidentally, she had trained in medicine at Wits University alongside James Njongwe who had launched the East London defiance campaign on 15 June.

The press reported basically what they were told by the police. The Daily Dispatch covered the funerals of the eight admitted deaths, but printed no names and generally presented a bland face for its paranoid white readership that was particularly exercised by the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya. It did, however, report much of the legal process – apparently with indifference to the spelling of defendants’ names, although making up for archival gaps.

There was an inquest and four trials. The latter covered general public violence; the two murders; and the despoliation of the nun’s body. The inquest predictably found that the police had acted in self-defence and that no one was to blame, although the names and ages of the dead suggested indiscriminate killing. The public violence trial records are absent from the archive, but interestingly an Institute of Race Relations researcher compiled telling information about a number of the defendants. Some were school drop outs.

The murder trial of eight people was based on the dubious legal doctrine of common purpose. A relatively inexperienced Joe Slovo appeared for the defendants. The prosecution was hampered by the impossibility of fixing a precise time of death as the context to judge individual actions. Witnesses were assaulted by the police and threatened by the community, and at least one chose to disappear. There were two convictions but whether these were sound is doubtful, all the more telling as the guilty were executed. Courts invariably accepted police versions of events and while there is a trial record it has omissions (the two closing addresses, for instance) and clear biases.

This complex picture suggests that the silence that subsequently surrounded these events was no accident. Virtually everyone, except the victims, had an interest in burying this incident with the bodies of its victims. Both system and circumstances were ideal for cover-up and local and parliamentary requests for an official inquiry were brushed aside. And the fact that basic documents are listed in archival inventories, but have since gone missing suggests deliberate interference. This does not happen by accident.

Over the last twenty years the amaRoma and the local community have both commemorated and documented these events, in particular the death of Sister Aidan. A memorial centre that hosts community activities bears her name. Njabulo Ndebele made the telling point in a commemorative lecture that history and literature is replete with detail about what was done to black South Africans. But it is also important to remember what they did in turn and accept that they were subjects with agency and moral obligations.

That is indeed a fitting memorial to Sister Aidan and a message for our times.