Appalling atrocities occurred under the flag of apartheid as the white minority government sought to impose a racist system on the majority of South African citizens. Many of the atrocities were subsequently investigated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and are now seared into public memory.

But not all. One of the more notable gaps in the country’s collective memory is a massacre that took place in 1952. It was never officially investigated and few people know about it.

I set about trying to rectify this in my book, Bloody Sunday: The nun, the Defiance Campaign and South Africa’s secret massacre. After seven years’ extensive research, I have written an account of what happened on 9 November 1952, in what was then East Bank Location, now called Duncan Village. This is an area that was set aside for black people in East London, a medium-sized town in the south east of the country.

The book is about the life, death and memorialisation of Sister Aidan Quinlan, an Irish nun and medical doctor, who lived and worked in Duncan Village and was murdered on that fateful day. Based on multiple archival and oral sources, the book breaks the silences surrounding the violence – on both sides. In the words of historian Jacob S. Dlamini, who wrote an endorsement for the book, it is

about the need for South Africans to learn to listen to voices from the past in order to re-imagine the telling of their haunted history.

9 November 1952

On the day in question police armed with batons, .303 rifles with fixed bayonets, revolvers and military sub-machine (Sten) guns dispersed a meeting in East Bank Location (Duncan Village) that had been organised by the East London branch of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League. The police later admitted to killing eight people and injuring 27.

In retaliation, mobs of mainly young people spread through the area, looting and burning symbols of white control. They also killed two white people who happened to be in the area. An insurance salesman was beaten to death with sticks. Sister Aidan, who is believed to have driven into the area to help the wounded, was stoned, stabbed, and burned to death in her car. Her body was also mutilated.

The police responded by rampaging through the area in troop carriers for hours, shooting at people and into houses. Informed but unofficial estimates of the death toll ranged from over 80 people killed immediately to over 200 if one counted those who died later.

Bodies were buried secretly by relatives who feared being implicated in the murders of the two white people.

The government in Pretoria dispatched the Minister of Justice, C.R. Swart, to East London. Following his visit there was a clampdown on media reporting. And the government and East London City Council rejected calls for a commission of inquiry. The massacre became a secret.

The context

The killings took place at the height of the ANC’s Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws. The campaign, which began on 26 June 1952, involved ANC volunteers flouting discriminatory laws, inviting arrest and choosing to be jailed rather than pay a fine.

The ANC has claimed that its membership grew from 7,000 to 100,000 in the campaign and it was brought to an end only because of the government’s repressive measures including the banning, arrests and charging of leaders, and new, heavier penalties.

However, in October and November 1952, there were outbreaks of violence across the country. Scores, maybe hundreds, of people were killed by police and six white people were murdered in mob retaliation.

The events in East London were the last and most violent – and politically embarrassing to the ANC. Sister Aidan ran a clinic for black people and the savage mutilation of her body shocked white and black communities alike. The ANC distanced itself from all the “outbreaks”. Nelson Mandela, who was volunteer-in-chief, said they “had nothing whatever to do with the campaign”.

In the wake of the tragic events in East London the Defiance Campaign came to an end in the eastern Cape and limped to closure elsewhere in the country.

I argue in my book that by disassociating itself from the riots, the ANC missed an opportunity. It could have – but did not – place on public record a massacre alleged to be larger than the Sharpeville massacre eight years later in which 69 people were killed.

There were a number of reasons for the silence. One was due to the fact that the ANC leaders who might have spoken out were banned and in hiding elsewhere in East London at the time and fled the town afterwards. Another is that the police did not allow journalists into the area so there was no one to record what happened.

In contrast, a Drum reporter and photographer attended the Sharpeville protest and captured what happened in iconic reports and photographs.

Half a century later another opportunity was missed when the ANC tasked the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with investigating gross human rights violations of the apartheid era from 1 March 1960. This left 12 years of apartheid rule – and the tragic killings during the Defiance Campaign – unexplored. The limitation was set in the belief that the worst atrocities of apartheid occurred after that date and because the commission needed to complete its work as speedily as possible.

Remembering the massacred

While Sister Aidan’s death has been memorialised in East London in recent decades, there has been no formal memorialisation of the black people who died that day. I hope that my book Bloody Sunday will help to fill that gap.

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