Book review — Anne Hope: The Struggle for Freedom


On 17 October, Stephanie Kilroe launched her new biography about Anne Hope, a South African anti-apartheid activist, the president of the lay Catholic community, The Grail, and the founder of community development programme, Training for Transformation, at St. Augustine College. Anthony Egan SJ reviews the book, describing it as a “spiritual biography” that shows “how deep faith engages with the public and private lives of a complex person.”

Although Anne Hope (1930-2015) was well-known in certain Catholic circles in southern and eastern Africa, her influence (though perhaps not her name) moved beyond church circles, particularly during the anti-apartheid struggle. This was largely due to her role in pioneering work in adult education based on Brazilian Paulo Freire’s conscientization method, culminating in the Training for Transformation manuals she developed with her United States colleague and life partner, Sally Timmel.

Stephanie Kilroe, a retired development worker and author of this biography, knew Anne personally, and this book draws on Anne’s private papers and interviews to tell the story of a truly remarkable activist and human being.

Anne Hope’s journey begins in a Johannesburg middle class white Catholic family, proceeds through university in South Africa (Rhodes) and Britain (Oxford), where she trained as a teacher, to the United States and then back to Africa, interspersed with time in the United States. It also spans the seismic shifts in the Catholic Church – the currents of renewal that preceded the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Council itself, the excitement of the immediate post-Conciliar period, and the subsequent ‘restoration’ under John Paul II. Her life came to an end at the beginning of the ‘Francis era’, whose mood – of mercy, pastoral care and environmental concern – surely resonated with Anne’s world view.

Her life was deeply influenced by two movements. In South Africa as a student she was involved with the National Catholic Federation of Students (NCFS), at a time when its thinking deeply anticipated the vision of Vatican II renewal – and started to take a strong political stand against apartheid. The other movement – one that she would lead in South Africa – was The Grail, a lay Catholic women’s movement.

Anne Hope’s journey … spans the seismic shifts in the Catholic Church subsequent ‘restoration’ under John Paul II.

Anne joined the Grail in the United States in 1954. A movement of lay women committed to renewal of the Church, it was structured almost like a religious order. It combined spirituality, theological study and commitment to development work. Through the Grail, Anne became familiar with the ideas of Paulo Freire, which she implemented through the Grail’s work in East Africa.

While in Boston doing further studies she met a Grail associate and former US Peace Corps volunteer, Sally Timmel. They fell in love, while at the same time working together implementing and applying Freire’s thought. This created a crisis in Anne’s involvement with the Grail – and to avert possible tensions she stepped down from leadership roles, though she maintained a close association with the movement all her life.

By the 1980s the fruits of Anne and Sally’s work throughout Africa was distilled into the multi-volume Training for Transformation. Published in Zimbabwe, it became a key resource for a range of community-based organizations around the world. (I first discovered TfT as a young undergraduate in the 1980s – in, appropriately given Anne’s history, NCFS).

Anne Hope’s Training for Transformation became a key resource for a range of community-based organizations around the world.

Beyond the story of Anne’s public life, Stephanie Kilroe presents us with Anne’s personal and spiritual life, drawing on Anne’s unpublished ‘morning papers’ (a kind of spiritual diary). Through this we see her friendships with Jimmy Stewart, a Trotskyist Catholic English professor married to her sister Joan, and his family.

We read too of the tragic death of Jimmy and Joan in a car accident in Lesotho, where Jimmy taught. Her niece Clare, an ANC activist, would also be assassinated in Natal in 1993. Above all, we read of her sometimes turbulent relationship with Sally; after a period of estrangement in the late 1980s they were reconciled. Through it all Anne’s deep faith kept her struggling through.

I hope this short outline has convinced you that this is a book to read. It is a short, yet rich narrative that succeeds on a variety of levels, any one of which makes for compelling reading.

It is a short, yet rich narrative that succeeds on a variety of levels, any one of which makes for compelling reading.

For those interested in South African struggle or church history, or for that matter the impact of the Second Vatican Council on the lives of ‘ordinary’ Catholics (although one could hardly call Anne ordinary!), it is a significant and insightful contribution to the genre of biography as history.

As a kind of spiritual biography it is also important, showing how deep faith engages with the public and private lives of a complex person – without, thankfully, falling into the all too easy trap of piety.

On a critical note, the historian in me sees things that deserved expansion. One aspect is the connection between student movements like NCFS and the wider process of political conscientization in South Africa, particularly among white students. Similarly I would have loved to read more about Anne’s work with Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness movement in the 1970s. I would also have liked to understand more about Anne’s understanding of herself as a gay woman in a homophobic Church and political culture.

But that would have been a different biography, more ‘academic’ – and probably at the cost of the deeply personal and warm tone of this work.

It’s just struck me that throughout the review I have referred to ‘Anne’, highly unconventional, even ‘unprofessional’, for a review! Yet looking back this should not surprise me. Stephanie Kilroe’s prose presents a character whose personality is such that she comes across as someone you’ve known. Even those of us who never met Anne! That’s a remarkable skill.       

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Book review — Anne Hope: The Struggle for Freedom