Uncovering the terrible truth of a secret massacre

Review: Vivien Horler

Bloody Sunday – the nun, the Defiance Campaign and South Africa’s secret massacre, by Mignonne Breier (Tafelberg)

Mignonne Crozier has brought all her skills as a journalist, academic and researcher to uncovering the dreadful events of a massacre in East London on November 9, 1952.

She believes it is likely many more people died on that and subsequent days than the 69 who were killed eight years later at Sharpeville. But the official figures were eight Duncan Village residents shot or bayoneted by police, and two whites killed in retaliation, one of them a nun.

In the late 1940s and early 50s conditions in the tightly packed “locations” of East London were dire and people were angry. In June 1952 the ANC launched the Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws.

The idea was for people to deliberately break apartheid laws, be arrested and overwhelm the jails. The campaign started peacefully, but from October there had been violence, first in Port Elizabeth, then Johannesburg and, on November 8, in  Kimberley.

On Sunday November 9 the ANC Youth League of East London had police permission to hold a religious meeting on Bantu Square in East Bank location, but shortly before the meeting leaders were served with banning orders, and were unable to attend. Breier suggests that violence might not have broken out if the leaders had been present to control events.

About 109 police members were on the square when the meeting began. Roughly half were white, and while the black cops had only batons, the whites were armed with Sten guns, .303 rifles with fixed bayonets, and revolvers.

Although the meeting opened with hymns and a prayer, it quickly became clear to police that it was not actually a religious occasion. The crowd of around 800 people were ordered to disperse. When they failed to do so, there were two baton charges, and when people still didn’t leave, the police officer in charge warned that he would have to use “sterner” methods.

When people started throwing stones at the police, the officer told his men to fire.

Although police said only about 30 shots had been fired, township residents said police continued shooting for hours. At first some of the injured were taken by neighbours and friends to Frere Hospital, but stopped after patients and their companions were arrested.

This, believes Breier, is why the police were able to claim only eight people had died – people spirited the dead and injured away so as not to be taken into custody.

And into this mayhem stepped two white civilians, an Afrikaans insurance salesman who routinely visited the location on a Sunday to collect premiums, and Sister Aidan Quinlan, a medical doctor who was driving back to her convent in the township when she was waylaid by a furious crowd.

Breier’s parents were teachers who had worked at various mission schools in the former Ciskei and Transkei, including the celebrated Lovedale College in Alice, and Healdtown near Fort Beaufort.

But Margot Crozier’s attitude hardened as she grew older, and she warned the young Breier not to go into the townships to do good works. “You will be the first to be killed,” she would say. Years after Crozier’s death, Breier found two newspaper photographs in her Bible, one of Sister Aidan in her wimple, and the other of a burned-out classroom with the caption: “All that is left of the Duncan Village Mission School for Native children after East London riots on Sunday night.”

Breier decided to find out what had really happened in Duncan Village that day.

She writes: “Many years later I still have unanswered questions but also enough information to tell a story that is far more complicated than the one I think my mother knew. It is not only about Sister Aidan… It is also about scores of other people who were killed by police that day, who have left only the slightest of traces in the written history of South Africa, but who should be remembered too.”

Breier has interviewed some of the people who were there, and also haunted archives all over South Africa, including Catholic archives which contained a great deal about Sister Aidan. She has read the transcripts of the legal investigations that followed, and the murder trial. Some of what she discovered was truly ghastly.

This is an awful story, meticulously researched and well told.







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