Forgetting apartheid: history, culture and the body of a nun

SOURCE: Africa
OUTPUT TYPE: Journal Article
TITLE AUTHOR(S): L.J.Bank, B.Carton
Print: HSRC Library: shelf number 9579
HANDLE: 20.500.11910/10634

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In 1952, the African National Congress (ANC) initiated its Defiance Campaign, opposing apartheid laws through organized civil disobedience and African nationalism. On Sunday 9 November, the city of East London became a site of political mobilization when 1,500 Xhosa-speaking ANC sympathizers peacefully protested in Bantu Square, the hub of a township named Duncan Village. Police arrived and fired on the crowd, igniting ???spontaneous riots???. An Afrikaner salesman and an Irish nun were killed in the ensuing unrest. Rumours circulated that a mob ate the white woman; troop reinforcements then fanned into the township to wage a retaliatory war, shooting and bayoneting their victims. Upwards of 200 Africans may have died but only nine fatalities were recorded. If the revised toll is credible, the bloodshed exceeds that of Sharpeville, the worst one-day massacre in apartheid South Africa. Oral sources explain why the slaughter in Duncan Village is not widely known. Township residents secretly carted the dead to rural graves, fearing to report their losses as people mourned the tragic slaying of the nun named Sister Aidan. Today, ANC rulers of East London seem content to silence the memory of a mass killing reputedly spawned by chaos and cannibalism. At the centre of this incident is Sr Aidan's mutilation for the purpose of making muthi, a shocking incident that dominates the story of violence on Black Sunday. Using archival documents and oral histories, and incorporating the methodologies of Jennifer Cole, Donald Donham and Veena Das, this article reconstructs a narrative of ???critical events??? surrounding the nun's muthi murder. The scrutinized witness testimonies relay how township residents framed their fierce encounters with a symbolic (white person) and ubiquitous (militarized police) enemy. Oral sources reject the notion that an aimless ???riot??? occurred on 9 November. Instead, they reflect on cultural enactments of purposeful violence through scripted assaults and muthi ritual. Ultimately, they view the fatal attack on Sr Aidan as an evolving customary act of defensive retribution and symbolic warning, submerging truths in apartheid and hindering reconciliations in democracy.