Though he had charm and a wonderful penchant for storytelling, Sparks never lost the commanding presence of an editor and could come across as gruff and intimidating. Yet his was a positive vision of the country, one he shared with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whom he later wrote a book about. He had a special relationship with Nelson Mandela…
The career of Allister Sparks, one of South Africa’s greatest newsmen, tracked 65 extraordinary years of the country’s history. He long outlasted not just his peers but the apartheid system that he chronicled and fought, remaining a robust political commentator virtually until his death in Johannesburg last week, aged 83.
Sparks got a premonition of what was to come when, as a rookie reporter in 1953, he interviewed the minister of native affairs, Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd, perched on an old iron bedstead in a Queenstown hotel. Verwoerd gave him a grandfatherly lecture on his vision of grand apartheid, which was to be imposed on the country over the next 40 years at terrifying cost.
Sparks is principally remembered as the crusading editor of the Rand Daily Mail in the late 70s and early 80s, which broke the information scandal that brought down the government of John Vorster, exposed the murder in detention of the black consciousness leader Steve Biko and started serious reporting about black politics and the black labour movement for a predominantly white (though burgeoning black) readership.
Instead of an award for his journalism, he was fired in 1982 by the paper’s owners for being too left wing and attracting too many black readers, exposing the mining companies that owned the English-language newspaper groups as poor custodians of a free press. Three years later, having failed to destroy the DNA of the newspaper by getting rid of a succession of editors, they closed the Rand Daily Mail down. Sparks reached out to his international contacts – Donald Trelford at the Observer, Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, André Spoor of NRC Handelsblad – and launched a new career as a foreign correspondent, just as the country lurched into the township rebellion that would lead to the demise of Afrikaner rule.
Having reached the pinnacle of his profession, Sparks had to make a difficult transition, rather like a general returning to the trenches. He accomplished it largely because he was at root a reporter.
One of his greatest scoops was tracking down to Botswana the ANC military operatives, Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe, who had escaped police detention in 1964, evading a nationwide dragnet.
In the dark days of the 80s, Sparks showed bravery and perseverance, risking teargas and bullets on township streets, and taking time to listen to the stories of the victims. He was a passionate man and there was a gusto to his columns, an ability to latch on to inconvenient facts like a bulldog, a perceptiveness and a rich turn of phrase that bruised his adversaries. They hated him for it.
At a cocktail party for foreign correspondents, then President PW Botha, who usually managed to avoid him, was accidentally brought face to face with his liberal nemesis. “Why are you so bitter?”, asked Botha. As Sparks started to lay into Botha, his aides wheeled the visibly angry president away. Sparks took crap from no one.
Though he had charm and a wonderful penchant for storytelling, Sparks never lost the commanding presence of an editor and could come across as gruff and intimidating. Yet his was a positive vision of the country, one he shared with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whom he later wrote a book about. He had a special relationship with Nelson Mandela and, in 1994, the African National Congress put Sparks on its candidates list for the first democratic elections.
He declined, opting instead to launch an institute aimed at advancing journalism skills, and guided the transformation of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which had been the propaganda mouthpiece of the apartheid government. He launched the SABC into a golden age that was not to long outlast the expiry of his contract, after which it reverted to mediocrity and sycophancy.
Sparks wrote a series of books about South Africa, the first an anthropological examination of the “mind of South Africa”, the others chronicling the transition from apartheid to democracy. Age never dimmed his pen. He thundered on week after week, growing disenchanted with the leadership of the ANC, especially the corruption and missteps of Jacob Zuma. In his autobiography, The Sword and the Pen, published earlier this year, Sparks noted that despite his disappointment with Thabo Mbeki and Zuma, South Africa is still a much better place than it was under apartheid.
Phillip van Niekerk is a former correspondent of the Observer and editor of South Africa’s Mail and Guardian.