Maverick Life

BOOK REVIEW

Faith in our Struggle: A Memoir of Hope — the politics of principle and the spirituality of resilience

Faith in our Struggle: A Memoir of Hope — the politics of principle and the spirituality of resilience

In an age of cynicism, where everywhere it seems principles are up for sale to the highest bidder, this combination of autobiography, history and spirituality is a welcome vision of struggle, sacrifice and integrity, the values that we South Africans once held important. A review of Peter Sadie, Faith in our Struggle: A Memoir of Hope, Johannesburg: Staging Post, 2023.

For some reason, as I read my friend Peter Sadie’s memoir, I could not help but think of two of my favourite autobiographies — Saint Augustine’s Confessions and Leon Trotsky’s My Life. While I do not think of Sadie as either Augustine or Trotsky, his book bears at least a ‘hybrid’ resemblance, a hybrid that works very well. 

Peter Sadie’s autobiography depicts his journey from white working-class Catholic youth, through student politics and public work for the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC) in the 1980s, while also engaged in an underground African National Congress (ANC) cell, to the post-1994 shift from school teacher and lecturer to setting up his own leadership consultancy comprising old friends and comrades from the struggle era who, like him, had not joined the gravy train.  

This long, perhaps cumbersome, sentence sums up at least a part of what this important new book recounts. 

It is a ‘struggle’ autobiography, hence perhaps my Trotsky flashbacks, written from the perspective of one whose at least public site of engagement was the religious, specifically Roman Catholic, community. 

Its other subgenre might be more specifically that of white activist stories, of which there are many — some, admittedly, more memorable than others. Sadie’s book is certainly among the latter. Its deeper background is the history of the anti-apartheid struggle, particularly from within the student and religious settings from the end of the 1970s until the 1990s — and then the complex post-1994 period.

Sadie describes his early life and youth; one of a family whose ancestry came from Lebanon to South Africa, to seek a better life. A family of deep Catholic faith, his parents’ and siblings’ values — as well as his Catholic schooling — gave Sadie the inner resources as a student at the University of the Witwatersrand to embrace not just studies but activism. Supported by a number of fellow Catholic students, he worked within the Catholic and wider student movement, initially within what the Church would have called ‘justice and peace’ work but later, together with some of the group, in an underground ANC cell that was dedicated to producing and disseminating Movement information. 

This work continued after Sadie got a job with the SACBC. Whether the latter knew of his underground activities is unclear. But, having myself had contact with many who worked there during the 1980s, I know he was not alone in this.

After 1994, Sadie recounts how he moved into teaching, before running a facility for youth offenders. Motivated by his faith (and just plain good sense), he sought to focus on rehabilitation programmes rooted in building trust between staff and inmates. 

It worked very well — for a while. 

Sadly, he discovered that the company running the facility shifted from supporting him to opposing his innovations. Feeling that it was being turned into too much of a for-profit enterprise, even influenced by practices that he considered corrupt, he found himself out of a job. After a spell as a lecturer, he and a few old friends from struggle days started their own company, running leadership programmes.

Parallel with that, he describes his home life, including first marriage, divorce and later second marriage. What is striking here is his honesty about the impact of secret work on home and family, a theme not often addressed by ‘struggle’ biographies and autobiographies. Commendable is how he tried to give his children a normal life, yet also a life rooted in the fundamental moral values (e.g. non-racialism, justice, equality) that guided his choices.  

This brings me to a second dimension to the book, perhaps what gives me resonances of Augustine’s Confessions, one that for some readers may seem odd, but which cannot be passed over if one is to do it justice: spirituality. 

Spirituality

Catholicism — particularly the reformist, open-minded Catholicism of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and its deeply important development in the Third World after 1965, liberation theology — is integral to Sadie’s book, and his life. Like many young South Africans of his generation, the Catholic faith was the primary force that mobilised his decisions and actions. 

It is important to note here how this was a phenomenon that started or gained momentum in South Africa in the 1970s among predominantly Catholic student groups like the National Catholic Federation of Students (NCFS) and Young Christian Students (YCS). The former was among the first groups — outside seminaries and university theology faculties — to introduce Latin American liberation theology to the country. YCS, and its associate the Young Christian Workers (YCW), introduced the See-Judge-Act method of social analysis, theological reflection, political action and review. These approaches were subsequently used widely in the Catholic and other churches and influenced (in part at least) such key texts as the 1985 Kairos Document.

Such a shift also marked a shift in many young activists’ views on religion. Prayer was no longer simple acts of piety, but an attempt to integrate belief and worship with social action. 

The subsequent involvement of Sadie and others in political movements like the ANC, UDF and End Conscription Campaign might be seen as the fruits of such integration. And while the churches had in the past spoken out against apartheid with varying degrees of force, it marked the transition of parts of the churches into active resistance. Given this was by no means universal, it was common among them to see the Church itself as a ‘site of struggle’. This practice on a personal level, which Sadie describes too in relation to life, family and moral judgments regarding his post-1994 work, also entails spiritual discernment.

Reflections on life choices

This leads to a third dimension or theme of the book — sections at the end of each chapter in which Sadie invites the reader to reflect on one’s own life choices. Using his own story as a ‘text’, combined with a brief reference to Judeo-Christian Scripture, he offers the reader points for personal reflection.

I must admit that when I initially read these, I felt that they somehow jarred with the rest of the book. While not unfamiliar with such a literary form as spirituality — given my own life and work, this is unsurprising — it may seem an uncomfortable fit with autobiography. It may even turn off some readers.

But it shouldn’t. The tone is far from ‘preachy’, deeply ecumenical, eminently practical. It is consistent with who Peter Sadie is: someone who has since university days developed teaching tools for political-spiritual reflection and leadership. Given the unexpected interlocutors — Augustine and Trotsky — that popped up for me as I read it, it is doubly consistent: both authors’ autobiographies are deeply pedagogical.

At very least I would hope that if any reader finds these reflections intrusive, they would simply skip them and continue with the narrative. The book as a whole is too important to miss.

I encourage you to read this book. Not because I have known Peter Sadie – and a number of other people in this book — since the late 1980s, but because the story he tells is important on a number of levels.

As a work of history or autobiography, it sheds light on an under-researched part of South African struggle and religious history — at a point where both came together, secretly. Beneath the public Church-State, more accurately Religion vs State, kampf, there is a hidden history of underground work that needs to be told. Sadie’s book offers us a small part of that story.

On another level, it is a history of white resistance — a fragment of much greater resistance, granted, but a challenge to oversimplified, sometimes weaponised, official narratives. It is also an account of what might be at bottom called politics of principle or conscience and a spirituality of resilience. 

Regarding the former, it demonstrates how individuals are driven by a fundamentally moral vision to engage in politics not out of one’s self-interest. The latter dimension offers the means to sustain commitments, and to keep the moral vision alive.      

We need both today, more than ever.

In an age of cynicism, where everywhere it seems principles are up for sale to the highest bidder, this combination of autobiography, history and spirituality is a welcome vision of struggle, sacrifice and integrity, the values that we South Africans once held important. DM

Anthony Egan is a Catholic priest and Jesuit. Trained in history at the universities of Cape Town and Witwatersrand, he is also a theologian, specializing in ethics and church history. He is currently lecturing at Hekima University College in Nairobi, Kenya. 

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