The Death that Dare(d) Not Speak its Name: The Killing of Sister Aidan Quinlan in the East London Riots of 1952

The Death that Dare(d) Not Speak its Name: The Killing of Sister Aidan Quinlan in the East London Riots of 1952

Author: 
Breier, Mignonne
Publisher: 
Taylor & Francis Group
Date published: 
2015
Record type: 
Journal Title: 
Journal of Southern African Studies (JSAS)
Source: 
Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 41, No. 6, December 2015, pp. 1151-1165
Abstract: 

The killing and cannibalising of Irish nun Sister Aidan Quinlan in the South African township of Duncan Village, East London, at the height of the African National Congress’s (ANC) 1952 Defiance Campaign, is an event that has long been difficult in the telling. Although widely reported in the media at the time, it has been largely downplayed in the historiography of that period. However, recent anniversaries have revived narratives of her death and invited considerations of what it means for South Africa today. This article seeks to extend that trajectory by providing an account of events surrounding her death, considering the way in which they have been recorded (or not recorded) in historical texts, and suggesting reasons for the silences. These reasons include sensitivities around the topic of cannibalism, reluctance to obscure the deaths of scores of other people who were shot by police that day, and fear of sullying the ANC’s heroic narratives of the liberation struggle, and of perpetuating racist stereotypes. Yet the events have the potential to throw light on important but under-researched features of South Africa’s path to democracy, not least the role of missions and of nuns, and perceptions of that role among the people they serve. They remind us of potential effects of intolerable poverty, political oppression and police violence, and of the importance of remembering our pasts if we are to determine our futures. Political anxieties should not be allowed to prevent the telling of Sister Aidan’s story nor stand in the way of reasoned re-analysis of the events that led to her death. By confronting the painful facts of her death we are freed to consider other silences that surround it, including the role of the East London chapter of the Defiance Campaign and its leaders.

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CITATION: Breier, Mignonne. The Death that Dare(d) Not Speak its Name: The Killing of Sister Aidan Quinlan in the East London Riots of 1952 . : Taylor & Francis Group , 2015. Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 41, No. 6, December 2015, pp. 1151-1165 - Available at: http://library.au.int/death-dared-not-speak-its-name-killing-sister-aidan-quinlan-east-london-riots-1952-1