I am most honoured among citizens of this country, to have been invited to speak on an occasion of such historic significance. This occasion, to remember and reconcile with Sister Quinlan, comes in our hour of need.
What we need so desperately at this time, is our future. The terrible end of Sister Quinlan’s life in the streets of Duncan Village, a life we are here to recall and reflect upon, will also remind us, perhaps cruelly, of the past that has already made us. In 1994, not only did we want to release ourselves from that past, we also did something else. We wanted to create our future. Through the memory of Sister Quinlan, the people of East London are telling every South African that they still intend to honour and attain the future we continue to desire.
The memory of Sister Quinlan is one of the sign-posts we have to reflect on as we move forward to the next step.
I did not know of Sister Aidan Quinlan until about two years ago. Once I got to know her through her story, I felt a deep sense of loss. I felt deprived of something I should have known from when I was school going child. The school curriculum of the years of my upbringing should have had my primary school teachers telling us the story of Sister Quinlan. But of-course, that would have to wait until after 1994. Telling the story of Sister Quinlan in the classroom would have been considered by the state as a subversive act. But then my impression is that the story of Sister Quinlan has most probably not been told at any school since 1994, when telling it would not only be permittted, but would also be considered a necessary act of citizenship.
The story of Sister Quinlan comes across like one of many from the Bible: such as Jesus being betrayed by Judas Iscariot, or young David defeating Goliath, or Saul, a persecutor of christians, being struck blind by “a light from heaven” on his way to becoming Paul, the protector and defender of christians. These stories, like many in the Bible, are remarkable for their drama, fraught with meaning.
Judas’s is a story of the betrayal of trust; David’s, a story of succeeding against the greatest odds with the simplest of means; and Paul’s, a story of the transformation of evil into good. I remember the drama and meaning with which some of our teachers told us these stories. Sometimes they asked us to tell these stories, and we would be required to perform them as we did when they asked us to recite Izibongo zamaKhosi. That is partly why I can remember most of these stories to this day.
The story of Sister Quinlan is similarly fraught with meaning. It is the story of good intentions gone wrong in the frenzy of a thoughtless moment.
It is also a story about a strange chemistry: the chemistry of loving, and killing, and loving again. It is about life, and death, and life again. Sister Quinlan loved. Sister Quinlan was killed. Sister Quinlan is being loved again. The story ends to-day when we declare our love for her. And when we declare our love for her, we might declare our love for ourselves.
But Sister Quinlan would have wanted us to do more than tell of our love for her. She would have wanted us to go on to do what we have implied but never declared. She would have wanted us to love one another. So the story of Sister Quinlan is also about about South Africans loving one another. Today, on the day that she was killed 60 years ago, we have the opportunity to declare our love for one another
You might be asking yourself at this point an important question. Can politics and love ever hold hands? How can such an unimaginable thing occur? Haven’t we heard people tell us “politics is a dirty game”? Can you image politics and love sitting on one of these couches made for two people, looking into each other’s eyes, holding hands in a magical moment that never seems to end? To day, I believe, all of us gathered here, must somehow believe that such a miracle can happen.
But the embrace of love and politics can be a tricky one. Most of the time, politics cannot bear love. This is because politics is more likely to see in love, the face of judgement. Politics as power knows instinctively that without love, it can only be a force of destruction. But that force is attractive and can be as addictive as a drug. You cannot resist its allure no matter how much you know its capacity to destroy you.
Love on the other hand, has precisely the ability to see in politics, the dangerous temptations of power. Love then may want to tame politics, just as politics runs away to escape. But love knows that without politics as power, the world of its intentions may never be achieved. In their best days, love and politics know that they cannot live without each other. Is such an unlikely marriage possible?
My friend Adam Kahane, in his beautiful book, Love and Power reflects on this strange chemistry in powerful ways. I will invoke him again, later in this talk. But one this is clear to me. If my primary school teachers had told us children the story of Sister Quinlan, they would have let us into one of the most painful yet most vivid moral and ethical tragedies in the modern history of our country.
Interestingly, a state hostile to black people would have wanted to use the story of the killing of Sister Quinlan as an example of the depravity of black people, who killed one who loved them. But for some reason, the state seemed not to have done so: at least not in a concerted manner. The overall story of Sister Quinlan’s love for the people of Duncan village does accentuate her killing as a tragic mistake. Her death in the circumstances in which it occurred makes her larger than the “mistake” and carried the potential to be a transformative event for self-reflection by those who did the act putatively in the service of a larger cause.
The politics of division and fear would have questioned the intentions of my primary school teachers. Their act of love in extending the moral and ethical universe of their pupils would have been questioned. If they continued regardless, they would have exposed themselves to imputations of subversion. Hostile, loveless politics, always sees in the actions of love, its own hostilities, without recognising them as such, because accusation of others always lowers self-awareness. When you accuse others, you see more “over there” than “inside, here”. In much of our public life in South Africa today, we see a great deal of this process.
If the official curriculum of the time of my upbringing would never allow the telling of the story of Sister Quinlan, why are we not telling her story in our schools today?
I think it’s because it has become a matter of habit for us to keep telling the stories of what was done to us. We do not tell as much the stories of what we did. This habit results in a remarkable irony. The more we tell the stories of what was done to us, we steadfastly recall and therefore remain in the past that we had strived to release ourselves from. When we do this, we retain our status as objects. We can be objects not only in the eyes of others, but also in our own eyes.
Something else happens, though, when we tell the story of what we did. We become subjects. Subjects are responsible for what they do. The more we tell the story of what we did, we create the possibility that through our owe efforts we can create the future that we still desire. Then the story of our future becomes our story not the story our reaction to others. We become, through our own actions, the subject of our own learning. We will learn more from what we did and do, than only from what was done to us.
Why did we do what we did? Why did we kill one of us, sixty years ago? This kind of question leads to deep change. Answers to it have a great chance of changing us deeply. This kind of learning from the questions we ask of our own behaviour is as beneficial to the individual as it can be to an entire community. We ask because we want to change and become different in our actions from what we did or have been doing before we asked the questions. We ask because we want to do new things and become new people, making a new country.
So, what could my primary school teacher have told us of that day, sixty years ago to the day, on the 9thof November 1952? A gripping image has stuck in my mind, causing me to imagine what my teachers could have told us children. It comes from an email message from Zuko Blauw who trustingly let me into a remarkable event.
This is what Zuko Blauw said to me, as is in his email: “The Relics of Sister Aidan have arrived, they have been here since the 25 September. We decided to keep it a secret until the week of the Event. that is when people will actually know that she is here. i saw them, the rosary she was holding when she died and some bones. i froze as i looked at them. now she is here visiting all the places she liked.”
“The rosary….and some bones!” I too froze. It was like one of those moments in a movie when the camera makes you stare at an empty wall or at water in a basin and after a while, faces of people emerge bubbling up to the surface to give the impression of coming out of the past to replay past events in the present. But if the past is replayed in the present, the present is also removed as you the observer is taken to the past. This is the miracle of flashback. Flashback makes you see how the story began, and how it got to where you are with it right now.
That is why image of “the rosary …. and some bones” in my own mind began to spin like a whirlwind, rising up to reveal Sister Aidan Quinlan in her white veil. She is in her car, driving. She arrives at a road block where she is told by the police that it is dangerous to drive into Duncan Village.
C. Thomas, a researcher from the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, has studied some interesting events in Duncan Village between 1959 and 1964, which involve operatives of Umkhonto weSizwe, the ANC and the South African Police. In a brief expression, he captures in his paper what the police implied when they advised Sister Quinlan not to drive into the township. Duncan Village during the Defiance Campaign, he writes, “seethed with civil disobedience.” But Sister Quinlan was undeterred by the “seething”.
She had been in Duncan Village so many times “delivering a lot of babies in people’s homes day and night. She was well-loved. This was in the 1951-1952 period”. So we learn from Dr. Patiswa Njongwe whose Father Dr.
Njongwe knew Sister Quinlan. Sister Quinlan’s confidence came from her experience of so much that was intimate that she shared with the people of Duncan Village: delivering many of their babies. She would enter Duncan Village because her people needed her. She needed to be with them. She thought she ” knew” them.
I was unable to find out what kind of car she drove that morning. I only know that it was black. But why would I be interested in what car she was driving? In an obituary entitled “In Memoriam” and published on June 20, 1953, Dr. N. F. Maartens, a medical colleague of Sister Quinlan made a startling revelation about our Nun. Sister Quinlan had an interesting hobby: she loved driving. Driving for her “was a real hobby and she took a keen interest in motor cars. In free moments we often used to discuss the latest models.” A nun with love for the latest car models!
So I wondered then, what car she was driving whose windscreen was to be smashed in a hostile act towards her by the street crowd after stopping her at Bantu Street. Did they not recognise that car? Had they not seen it before. Why were they not able recognise it and then know who might be driving it? Did they not know the meaning of her veil and habit? We ask such questions because we wish that what happened did not happen. Indeed, such questions are the springs of love.
The story of the death of Sister Quinlan was captured and preserved with graphic detail by researchers Anne Mager and Gary Minkely in a rigorously researched paper titled: “Reaping the Whirlwind: the East London Riots of 1952.” Their paper was presented in at the History Workshop at the University of the Witwatersrand held between the 6th and the 10th of February 1990. That was twenty-two years ago. I will take time to read the portion I would like share with you as I cannot tell it better.
I want to prepare you for this story by sharing with you one of my favourites proverbs. It was one of the gifts of living in Lesotho for many years. A literal translation of it might go: “a woman grabs the knife on the side that cuts”. Not the handle. That’s too easy. It seems to be the easiest thing for most men to do. I invite you to be the woman who grabs the knife on the side that cuts and so you can feel her pain as the sharp blade cuts into her fingers. Yet she will not let go. She has to hold on, because a lot depends on it.
The events of Sunday afternoon, 9th November 1952, were part of a series of events triggered by the Defiance Campaign organised nationally by the African National Congress. Kimberly and Port Elizabeth were some of the major flash points. Heeding the call, “1500 residents of East London’s locations attended a mass meeting at Bantu Square in Duncan Village” defying the government “ban on gatherings and the restriction of 52 Eastern Cape leaders in terms of the Riotous Assemblies and Suppression of Communism Acts.” So, the mass meeting gathered there, leaderless.
“ANC Youth League President, Skei Gwentshe, himself restricted, obtained permission from the Chief Magistrate and the District Commandant for a prayer meeting to protest the bannings.
“Heavy police reinforcements had arrived in East London over the weekend in a bid by the state to prevent the riotous mood in the Eastern Cape from spreading to East London. A contingent of four truckloads of these men decided that, notwithstanding the presence of a lay preacher and a bible, the meeting was not a religious one. The crowd was ordered to disperse. Since people were apparently reluctant to move, the police charged with bayonets. Stones were thrown. The police opened fire with sten guns, revolvers and rifles. Dozens of people fell and several shots penetrated the flimsy walls of nearby shacks and sub-economic houses, wounding the occupants.
“Defiant and angry, the crowd broke up into smaller groups. Some went home, others began to march towards white East London and one band pursued a white man who made for the open door of an evangelist’s house
and attempted to take refuge. His pursuers brushed the preacher aside, chiding him: “Our people have been killed and you are trying to shelter a European.” The insurance salesman was dragged out into the street and beaten to death as he sat on his haunches, hands behind his head, pleading in Xhosa, “Forgive me, men.”
“A group of youths who had headed in the opposite direction saw a small black car with a single occupant, coming towards them. A young woman called out, “Here is a European woman, let us kill her!”. The group surged forward. A youth moved to the middle of the road and signaled the car to stop, shouting obscenities. The young man then smashed the windscreen with his stick and struck at the driver. Dr Elsie Quinlan, a Roman Catholic nun, called out for help then folded her hands in prayer. She was pelted with bricks, beaten with sticks, stabbed with a kitchen knife and set alight. One of the crowd shouted, “Stop! Stop! What are you doing now? ” and was cuffed over the ear. “We have beaten her, we have burned her, we have killed her!” a youth shouted. Finally, one of the youths announced, “We got the lady there, she is dead now.”
“The crowd opened up for a young woman brandishing a bread knife. Someone asked, “How can you finish a lady who helped us so much?” The knife was passed to a youth who cut flesh from the charred body. “I am eating the meat because I want to get tough”, said a young woman. Another began to eat the flesh for fear of being called “a spy”. While a young man was sharpening a knife against a sickle, a newcomer to the crowd was told, “We are eating the body of a nun”. One woman took some “meat” to show her child what human flesh looked like; others took the flesh home where they ground it into a fine powder, to ‘make medicine’.
“By evening, there were nine dead, including the two whites, twenty seven wounded by gunshot and three injured policemen. Of the those suffering from gunshot wounds, three or four were women. Ambulances entering the location were stoned. Anti-white feeling had reached a peak.
“That night, groups of youths went on the rampage and set fire to all the buildings associated with whites in the East Bank location – the Roman Catholic church, the Catholic mission, the new Teacher Training College, Peacock Hall, the house of the commonage ranger (where two dogs were
killed) and the Model Dairy depot. “Afrika!” the crowd shouted, “Burn the Romans!” “We must kill the Romans because the are Dutch!”.
“All that remained of the Roman Catholic Mission was a charred crucifix at the entrance to the school. Then came the moment of liberation. The shanty-town youth headed for the Gompo Institute for Natives, where they smashed down the doors and freed fifty-four “deviate” youths committed to the Institute. Phones were ripped out, windows shattered, mattresses and blankets set alight.
“The next day, the violence spread to West Bank location. Buses were stoned and the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches torched. Fear of more violence abounded. Caught between angry youth and possible police action, “small bands of natives” were seen slipping out of the locations late at night in a bid to escape to the rural areas.”
It is on this gruesome note that Ann Merge and Gary Minkley begin their research paper on East London in the early 1950s. They document the dehumanising conditions that we surmise made such brutal behaviour possible. They tell of the economic boom in East London that followed the end of the Second World War, and which attracted black captive labour to seek work in the town while living in the crowded, squalid three locations of the town altogether with a population of some 60,000 people. Every second child born in such conditions died within a year. They tell of relentless police harassment. They tell of the intriguing story of a rising underclass of young men and single women who pushed social conduct in the locations in directions most uncomfortable for traditional male tolerances.
In contrast, they tell also of the East London “beachfront looking like an Arabian princess”. The picture of racial privilege and oppression depicts a condition that condemns itself. They tell us that a “Commission of Enquiry into the Locations warned in 1949, that ‘if the condition is neglected much longer, East London which has sown the wind will reap the whirlwind’”.
No doubt, the story that Merge and Minkley tell will continue to be updated by further research. Fresh perspectives will yet emerge, extending our understanding.
But much as I am interested in the historical and sociological factors which go a long way in explaining human behaviour, I am far more interested in the decisions that people make in situations in which they find themselves.
To have a sense of what it could be like to be a situation that is almost impossible to understand, and which leaves you horrified, you have to imagine yourself in that situation and then ask yourself some questions. What would you have done had you been in that group of young people that stopped Sister Quinlan’s car and then proceeded to kill her.
If what was happening revolted you, going against everything you knew be right, would you have walked away? No one in that crowd who may not have approved of its actions walked away. We are even told of one who was scarred of being thought a “spy” or in our later days, and “informer”. Fear of being thought different would have prevented you from walking away despite the deep desire to do so. Everyone stayed to participate in a brutal killing.
What would you have done in that situation in which the only escape from the responsibility to walk away is to stay, and then to wear the face of bravery; and pick up a stone and hurl it at a defenseless person; make a fire
and burn the body of a person you have just killed? What is it like to see the flames consume a sizzling body? To smell it?
What is it like to “forget yourself”? What is it like to be in such a frenzy, that you possibly no longer know who you are? Something has happened in which you gave yourself up; and that you gave yourself up to something that had taken you over; and it had total control over you, and you had no control over it as an individual, and that no one else in that group had any control over it, and that it had turned you all into a force of destruction? Yet, you cannot say afterwards, that someone else did it. It was you. It remains you. It was you in the crowd. You gave yourself up to the crowd and the crowd gave you a new personality.
I ask these difficult questions in the attempt to put you right in middle of the scene of crime as a participant. These questions are meant to shift the gaze from someone who is doing something to you, towards yourself who is doing something to somebody else. They are meant to bring close to you the real prospect of your own capability, my own capability, to participate in evil. And when you become aware of that capability, something might begin to
happen to you: you might recognise yourself in those that did something unspeakably wrong exactly sixty years ago. Suddenly, they become human in ways you may never have suspected.
And when they become human, they begin to live again, after they have died in their foul deeds. Your imaginary participation in their deeds has resurrected them. So, we contemplate their humanity at its worst moment. We contemplate our own humanity at its worst moments.
Today the image of our humanity at its worst moments surrounds us. I would like to invite you to pick up the knife again, and like a woman, hold it firmly on its sharpest side and press, and let the blade cut once more into your fingers.
What has happened to people trained to ease physical pain, to save life, and to preserve it, only to abandon patients to die, newly born babies to die, because they are on strike for a wage increase?
What has happened to people trained to nurture the next generation of citizens in communities across the land, to transmit knowledge and skills to them, to shape them with the gift of knowledge, curiosity, morality and conscience, of thoughtfulness and sensitivity, of industriousness, to be the image for the young to emulate, only to abandon the young in their care just before examinations, because they are on strike for a wage increase?
What has happened to people who spent many years in prison, in exile, ambushed, tortured, killed, and who made us dream of a new future, only to abandon the vision they suffered for because they are now in power only to make money and more money for themselves and in the process becoming more and more like those they accused of doing evil things to them, and now seem determined to look exactly like them? They want to pass the same kind of laws; shooting to kill in exactly the same way, wanting to stay in power for the sake of power in exactly the same way.
There is nothing wrong in seeking a wage increase; nothing wrong in earning a good salary and winning a tender you have worked hard to put together to provide the best possible service to the paying public. But there is something wrong in the pursuit of money without a social vision.
What kind of world do we seek, in which the more money we want, the less qualified people we produce in our own schools; and the more such people we produce, the more they will not deserve a salary increase in future, and the more they will in turn seek to render the schools dysfunctional, and the more and more they do not deserve a salary increase, until there is no money left in a bankrupt country, and no skilled people to get it to rise again? How much money does someone need for which they can watch others die through their acts of deliberate neglect? Or deliberately keep young people in a state of anxiety about their future? How much money is worth such pain and destruction?
Sister Quinlan is no longer out there being killed; Sister Quinlan is “in here” in us, as we set about killing ourselves. It is a national suicide that can dwarf anything that Nongqause ever brought upon us.
We kill ourselves out of blind loyalties, because despite our best intentions, we are unable to walk away from the scene of our crime. Weighed down by loyalties that no longer carry any meaning. Caught in the frenzy of having forgotten ourselves, we stay there and implicate ourselves even further. We kill ourselves wanting to be like those that killed us before. And we kill those among us, who like Sister Quinlan, do good, like the son of East London I wrote about not too long ago. I speak of Andile Matshaya, murdered for being an accomplished professional, in the national Department of Transport, who loved his work and seemed to have uncovered corruption in that department.
Yet, in our worst moments we remain human, and we have the potential to rise up again, as we must. We must get out of a cycle in which, we strangle ourselves with our own hand. We must create a new cycle in which the good we do, creates more good, thriving out of the good we do. We must do no less than love ourselves. Can there be a greater love than loving those that killed Sistern Quinlan?
Trying them for murder would be to uphold the principles of public order. But formal law can only take us up a point. Something deeper is called for here. The deepest love possible, goes beyond law.
That love is in the chemistry of the story of Sister Quinlan. It is the strange chemistry of loving, killing, and loving again. The love I am talking about is not the love between lovers, although we should not discount that
kind of love. It is something that my friend Adam Kahane has pondered profoundly in his book Power and Love.
Remember the image of love and politics sitting of a couch for two. Start from there, and then see the words transform. This transformation Adam Kahane recalls in the way Paul Tillich uses these two words “power” and “love”. Power is “the drive of everything living to realize itself with increasing intensity and extensity”. Power is something we all need then to find our way in the world. Then Tillich defines love as “the drive towards the unity of separated.”
Through a remarkable process of exploration, Kahane arrives a powerful formulation: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, or worse; love without power is sentimental and anemic, or worse. We can see both these generative forms in our world, in our work, and in ourselves. Choosing power or love is always a mistake. How can we exercise power and love together?“ Kahane asks us a powerful question.
Love is a fundamental principle of unity and coherence and reconciliation in a diverse world. We have lived through and fought against a divided world that had no love. What happened to our compulsive drive to bring together what was divided and which brought about so much pain and suffering? Where did it go?
Our struggle for liberation was driven by the deep need to find ourselves in the world again: restore our family life, and our communities into living organisms. We wanted to replace the nightmare of oppression with the day of liberty.
We did not do it for an organisation. We did it for ourselves, the people. The organisation was subsidiary to us, the people. We did not serve the organisation; it served us. Organisations that replace the people that formed them, that begin exist for themselves, degenerate into totalitarian power without love. Power without love is dangerous. It kills. Driven by a lack of self-awareness, it killed Sister Quinlan, and consumed those that killed her. It is power without feeling; without creativity, without dreams. Driven by immediate goals and desires, it has no overriding purpose. It is the pursuit of a wage without a social vision to accord higher purpose to that wage. What is the point of having more money without a society? Money without society is the outcome of solidarities that have lost transcendent purpose.
Love without power gets us to dream without grounding us in the realities of hard work. You cannot evoke our aspirational constitution without striving to live according to its exacting demands. The demands of our constitution run counter to the energies that make you forget yourselves in a moment of frenzy. Our constitution is designed to keep you thinking, weighing, wondering, figuring out, thinking about the other, never forgetting yourself. Our constitution fosters creative thinking about living together, giving and taking, underscoring our equality. The love that seeks to bind us draws its power from our constitution.
Love with power teaches us not to allow any political party, or trade union, or institution to become idols to worship and in the process take away the entire purpose of our lives by turning us into collectives of blind loyalty and conformism that elevate themselves above the unifying nature of community, society, and nation.
I start from the people that killed Sister Quinlan. I have an obligation to love them as a part of me, at the same time as I have an obligation to insist that they be subject to the rigorous demands of our constitution. That is the source of my growth – our growth as a people. Maki S’khosana of Duduza falsely accused of being an informer was also killed by young people in a moment frenzy. Where are they today? Perhaps they wander about in a daze, sometimes, inarticulately in search of love.
God bless all those who died in the frenzy of impassioned moments. God bless their families and friends.
I mourn for young people, who at an early age, have the core of their being emptied out. I see them almost daily day on our television screens, not at school, toyi-toying and dangerously demanding something and destroying for their demands. It seems they will be back again, destroying something else for their demands. They will be back again in pursuit of demands without a vision. Many of their elders dance with them, accrediting their actions. Or does the act of accreditation work the other way: elders who have abandoned their authority to those who in pushing back boundaries, will yet need them in moments of loss of control.
Sister Quinlan who put her palms together in prayer as her execution began, was killed loving her assailants. Her assailants are my people at their worst moment. How do we work towards our best moments, and then to live
such moments every day in happiness and in sadness, in pain and in joy, but always together in our love for one another: for the new South African?
God Bless Sister Quinlan.
God Bless South Africans.
God Bless South Africa.
God Bless Africa.
 Act 9:3 − 6
 Patiswa Zola Njongwe. Adler Museum Bulletin, Vol. 35, No.1. June 2009. Pp 14-20
 N. F. Maartens. S.A. Tydskrif vir Geneeskunde.20 Junie, 1953.
 Sister Aloysia’s account is that Sister Quinlan’s car was overturned with her inside and then set alight. East London, 6 November, 2012.
 Adam Kahane. Power & Love: Solving Tough Social and Organizational Problems. Cape Town. Tafeberg, 2010.
 Ibid. p.2