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Bloody Sunday: The nun, the Defiance Campaign and South...

South Africa


Bloody Sunday: The nun, the Defiance Campaign and South Africa’s secret massacre

Sunday, 9 November 1952 should be remembered as a day of infamy in South Africa’s history, but few know of a brutal massacre when police opened fire on people at an ANC Youth League event in Duncan Village in East London. The official death toll was eight people killed by police gunfire and bayonet, and two killed in retaliation, including the Irish nun and medical doctor, Sister Aidan Quinlan, who lived and worked in Duncan Village.

Today it is believed that between 80 and 200 died that day, most buried quietly by their families, who feared arrest if they sought help at hospitals. In the cover-­ups and long silences that followed, the real facts of this tragedy at the height of the ANC’s Defiance Campaign were almost lost to history. ‘Bloody Sunday’ follows the trail of the remarkable Sister Aidan into the heart of a missing chapter in our country’s past – and what was one of the most devastating massacres of the apartheid era.

Alcott Gwentshe was not the only person responsible for the meeting that led to the “greatest tragedy in the history of East London”, as he described the events of the day. He was certainly not responsible for Sister Aidan’s death, but the letters which he sent to the Daily Dispatch in the week afterwards, setting out the ANC position on the events, were in his name and he became public enemy number one in the eyes of the public, the police and municipal authorities. When the government failed to immobilise him through repeated bannings and a lengthy trial for breaking his banning order on the night of 8 November (he was later acquitted), the local manager of Native Administration asked the Department of Native Affairs to have him banished from East London, along with Joel Lengisi.

In July 1954 the native commissioner of East London, accompanied by two troop carriers of armed policemen, arrived at the Duncan Village homes of Gwentshe and Lengisi and served them with orders signed by the minister of native affairs, Hendrik Verwoerd, and the Governor General, EG Jansen, in terms of the Native Administration Act of 1927. In this way, they were condemned to what has been described as “the cruellest and most effective instrument of punishment and intimidation which the government could mete out” – banishment. They were banished to remote parts of the country on the grounds that they were “inimical to the peace, order and good government of the Natives in the East London district”.

They were taken by train to Pretoria, where the Special Branch made them remove their clothes and “took pictures of the naked men, side by side”, before throwing cold water over them. Gwentshe, who had been described by the mayor of East London as “a known agitator”, was dispatched to a farm in the Pilgrim’s Rest area and Lengisi to a farm in the Barberton district. Both men were subsequently relocated to even more remote places after the authorities found it hard to monitor their movements and suspected they were continuing to be involved in the ANC. In 1955 Gwentshe was banished to a Native Trust Farm, Frenchdale, near Mafeking (Mahikeng) in the Northern Cape and Lengisi to Driefontein near Vryburg.

Gwentshe’s personality, ingenuity and the privations he experienced during banishment have been immortalised in an article by Can Themba, published in Drum in August 1956. When he arrived at Bushbuckridge he was “stone broke”, couldn’t speak the local language (Shangaan) and was distrusted by the locals there. He had to rely on two other banished people for help. He also wrote to friends and the ANC for financial help, even for cigarettes (as a pitiful letter to ZK Matthews indicates). When he was sent his saxophone, he started a band and played at functions until the authorities felt he was becoming too “socially popular” and banished him to Frenchdale. Here he was given two huts that were not fit for human habitation – dirty, empty, one with broken windows. Can Themba called the place “a concentration camp, although it had no barbed wire fences, no armed sentries, no forced labour”. It consisted of 12 bleak round huts in a treeless area three hundred yards (274m) by a hundred and fifty yards (137m) and fenced in with wire. In winter it was bitterly cold, in summer dreadfully hot. It was “a prison that has no food, no water, no hope of release” (in the words of one of the people banished there).

Gwentshe found the place “a desert”. There was no shop, no post office, not a cow, “not even a mealie stalk that Nature might have allowed to grow accidentally”. The nearest village was Pitsani, about twelve miles (19.3km) away. Mafeking, the nearest town, was fifty miles away. Once again, Gwentshe had to rely on some of the other banished people for assistance. They included men originally from Witzieshoek, the site of heated resistance to cattle culling in 1950, which James Njongwe described when he launched the Defiance Campaign in East London in 1952.

Gwentshe managed to persuade the local native commissioner to let him stay for some time in Mafeking. Here he again started a small band and began to earn a little by playing at functions in the town and its location. However, when he played at the reception of the new, young Barolong chief, Kebalepile Montsioa, in Mafeking, he was arrested and charged with defying his banishment order. Although he won his case with the help of Joe Slovo, he remained confined to the area until 1960, when he was allowed to return to his home town of Tsomo in the Transkei.

In 1961 the ANC arranged for Gwentshe to travel secretly from Tsomo to East London to speak at the launch of uMkhonto we Sizwe in that city. In August 1964 his banishment order was revoked. He returned to East London for the last years of his life and died there on 27 October 1966 at the age of fifty-four.

Gwentshe’s activism lived on in members of his family, but they suffered greatly as a result. His sons, Mzwandile and Mzimkulu were both sentenced to terms of imprisonment on Robben Island for furthering the aims of the ANC. In 1997 his youngest son, Zweliyazuza, told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that the National Party government despised his father because “a white nun, Sister Aidan, passed away… apparently… because of Gwentshe’s influence”. He asked the commission to “investigate the atrocities perpetrated by the notorious Donald Card and others on the Gwentshe family”. He said Mzwandile was so badly tortured that he became “an epileptic case” and spent most of his sentence in a state psychiatric hospital. He also tried to describe the privations experienced by his brother Mzimkulu and his mother, Irene Gwentshe, to whom a letter bomb was sent.

A statement by Donald Card was then read to the commission by his lawyer. In it Card denied that he had tortured either Mzwandile or Mzimkulu and said that when Mzimkulu was let out of jail, “we became very good friends. We actually visited each other at our respective homes and there was never a suggestion that the family was bearing a grudge”.

In the final report of the TRC, the entry for Alcott Gwentshe in the list of victims reads: “Gwentshe, Alcott Skwenene, an ANC supporter, was detained in Butterworth, Transkei, on 1 January 1964. It is believed that Mr Gwentshe was poisoned to death by members of the Security Branch two years after his detention.” It is not clear on what evidence this entry is based and I have not been able to find any further details. All I can say for certain is that Alcott Gwentshe is buried in an overgrown cemetery off the Douglas Smit Highway in Duncan Village. The grave is marked by a wooden canopy with his photograph and the dates of his birth and death inscribed on it. When last I saw it, the paint was peeling and the wood was rotting.

Perhaps the greatest privation of all for Alcott would have been his description by the TRC as a mere “ANC supporter”. Nowhere did the TRC acknowledge that he was a leader in the branch of the ANC Youth League that had once rallied the second-highest number of volunteers in the most important passive resistance campaign in the country’s history. DM

Mignonne Breier is a former journalist, lecturer and education researcher who has worked at the University of Cape Town, University of the Western Cape and the Human Sciences Research Council. She is also the author of Letters to My Son, published in 2013. Bloody Sunday is published by Tafelberg.


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