The Moral Rearmament Activist: P.Q. Vundla's Community Bridge-Building during the Boycotts on the Witwatersrand in the Mid-1950s

By Mason, Garth | Journal for the Study of Religion : JSR, December 2015 | Go to article overview

The Moral Rearmament Activist: P.Q. Vundla's Community Bridge-Building during the Boycotts on the Witwatersrand in the Mid-1950s


Mason, Garth, Journal for the Study of Religion : JSR


Introduction

This article scrutinises two foundational events in the history of the South African struggle for liberation, namely the school boycott of 1955 and the bus boycott of 1957. These events mark the beginning of mass action politics in South Africa. The official history of these two events, written by social historians such as Tom Lodge, interprets them as the dawn of mass opposition against apartheid. However, I contend that a closer analysis of these two events reveals a more complex history, inextricably connected to the person of Philip Qipa (P.Q.) Vundla. Vundla was a nonconforming ANC leader, who disagreed with the way the party leadership approached political activism. His approach was driven by his spiritual connection to the Christian-inspired Moral Rearmament Movement (MRA), which sought political solutions through dialogue and aimed to benefit all communities within South Africa. The two boycotts serve as case studies to interrogate his MRA-inspired political activism.

P.Q. underwent a dramatic change in his personal life and political practice due to his encounter with the MRA and his adoption of MRA values. His non-confrontational style as a political activist, community and labour union leader, following his conversion to MRA thinking, set him apart from the dominant direction in ANC politics during the period. This article sets out to explain the growing disconnection between Vundla and the African National Congress (ANC) in terms of his MRA influence. Vundla still opposed Apartheid after his conversion to MRA principles, but in a nonconfrontational and community-based manner. His main concern was to build bridges between factions that had previously been divided by Apartheid. In this regard he differed radically from other anti-Apartheid activists of his time, who were concerned with ideological self-definition.

My research into Vundla's MRA-influenced spirituality reveals a complex and ambiguous force in his life that established a new discourse in opposition to Apartheid. In order to frame this discourse, I draw on two theoretical positions, namely Ricoeur's concept of attestation and Bhabha's concept of hybridity. These two notions are used to explore the liminal political space between colonial power and the opposition to colonial rule, and to argue that Vundla was an early forerunner of the bridge-building politics of Nelson Mandela, which focused on community and nationbuilding. The two boycotts serve as case studies to highlight Vundla's distinctively MRA values-influenced politics.

P.Q. Vundla arrived in Western Native Township in the 1930s with a set of values that derived from his childhood, his politically liberal-minded parents and his politicisation as a young black man. These values inspired him to become involved in politics, but because of his liberal ideas, he shied away from revolutionary methods. This led him to be ostracised, attacked by ANC Youth League (ANCYL) members and eventually expelled from the ANC. Nevertheless, he left an enduring mark on politics and community solidarity on the Witwatersrand. I argue that P.Q. Vundla's impact on the political landscape of South Africa cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of his involvement with the international MRA, otherwise known as the Oxford Group and the Caux Initiative for Change. When P.Q. Vundla encountered Nico Ferreira and the MRA in 1955, he was introduced to spiritual ideas with which he resonated, based on peaceful transformation through inner spirituality and dialogue across a wide political spectrum.

Ultimately, my research into P.Q. Vundla's activism reveals that politics and spirituality have an important intersection. Although the MRA is a spiritual movement, spirituality is intensely private and difficult to gauge from another person's account. Accordingly, and in line with my interest in the interface between the private and political, I am going to look at the (verifiable) impact of MRA principles on P. …

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