BORN in the Eastern Cape town of Cathcart and schooled at Queens College in Queenstown, Allister Sparks began his career in journalism at the town paper, The Representative.
Daniel Francois Malan was prime minister when he started out in 1951. He would report on politics through the Verwoerd years, the police state of BJ Vorster and the violent tenure of PW Botha.
Then, as foreign correspondent, he would write about and befriend Nelson Mandela, who would go on to describe him as “One of South Africa’s eminent journalists, whose outspoken views have served the cause of democracy in this country magnificently”.
The quote was used on the cover of Sparks’ final work, his memoir entitled The Sword and the Pen.
It is a monumental work which pays tribute to a monumental life lived in the cause of advancing freedom through courageous journalism.
Sparks had a hand in almost every major story of the past five decades.
His start at the Rand Daily Mail was inauspicious enough. When he arrived at the paper on the first day of his new job, the editor, Laurence Gandar, knew nothing about his appointment.
Down the passage, a farewell party was under way for the man who had appointed him.
Gandar, who led the Rand Daily Mail to taking a bold stand against apartheid in the teeth of political opposition -and opposition from the paper’s hand-wringing management -would become an example for Sparks.
The RDM had a somewhat shameful history of ‘jingo journalism’. Sparks wrote of its founding editor Edgar Wallace: “Only once in his many dispatches from the war did Wallace mention the majority population of black South Africans.” This was, he said, “because in the eurocentric outlook of the time, black people did not feature in any political or intellectual context.”
Sparks was disappointed to learn that the newspaper had failed to take a stand against the Natives’ Land Act of 1913, which he described as the ‘original sin’ of apartheid.
Under Gandar, and later Sparks, the Rand Daily Mail would become a champion of majority rule, a severe break even with the liberal establishment of the time, which favoured a ‘qualified franchise’.
Among the steps that Gandar took was to drop the use of the term ‘native’, replacing it with African, a move which caused outrage among white readers and led to a drop in circulation. But he stood firm.
Sparks disagreed with Gandar, however, when the latter decided not to publish what Sparks described as “the best news photographs ever taken in South Africa”, showing a field lttered with corpses after 69 were killed in the Sharpville massacre.
“Much as I admired Gandar, I thought that his decision was wrong,” Sparks would write.
Sparks’ big break came when he was sent to cover parliament in Cape Town, which he described with these words: “Here was a house full of white people talking most of the time about black people, assuming they know all about them, their wants and wishes and traditions and what should be done for them, never with them.”
He found Hendrik Verwoerd to be a dull evangelist. “His speeches in the house were long and tortuous, two-hour perorations delivered mostly in Afrikaans, which his supporters listened to with silent reverence. It was as though he was bringing the tablets of political truth down from Mount Sinai.”
He believed Verwoerd was ‘hopelessly wrong’ on apartheid and that he used flaky projections and his ‘misbegotten ideology’ to justify a system which was at root, racially oppressive.
Sparks would rise through the ranks, winning a Nieman Fellowship to study at Harvard. When he returned to the country, it was under the iron-fisted rule of BJ Vorster and his security henchman, ‘Lang’ Hendrik van den Bergh.
When two senior ANC officials, Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe, escaped from security police cells and fled to neighbouring Botswana, Sparks tracked them down to their redoubt.
“My name is Allister Sparks. I’m from the Rand Daily Mail, and I want to talk to Arthur and Harold,” he said, after knocking on the door.
After interviewing them for hours, he wrote a series of scoops, leading to the publication of special editions of the Rand Daily Mail.
The story was dramatic. A plane scheduled to ferry the ANC leaders away was burned down on the runway and an escape plan had to be hatched.
Sparks worked with legends such as Nat Nakasa -whom he encouraged to take up the Nieman scholarship -and Raymond Louw.
He was appointed editor of the Sunday Express, but not before he was asked to fly to Cape Town with manager Ian MacPherson to personally assure the leader of the United Party, Sir De Villiers Graaff, that the paper would not water down its support for his party.
Sparks refused and management retreated to lick its wounds.
Under Raymond Louw’s editorship, the Rand Daily Mail had covered the Soweto 1976 uprising as no other newspaper did. Reporter Gabu Tugwana and the paper’s chief photographer, Peter Magubane, had been assaulted by police, but had brought the story home. Four black journalists from the RDM would be imprisoned without trial, among fourteen in total.
Magubane would be held in solitary confinement for 365 days.
Sparks succeeded Louw as editor of the Mail after obtaining an assurance from management that he would not be forced to change the paper’s policies.
He appointed Helen Zille to cover parliament. When Steve Biko died in police custody, Sparks received a call from pathologist Dr Jonathan Gluckman and drove to meet him at his home.
In the garden, Gluckman, who had been asked to investigate the death by the Biko family, told Sparks: “I can tell you that (justice minister) Kruger is lying. Biko didn’t die of a hunger strike, he died of brain damage. He was beaten to death.”
Sparks called in Zille, who worked on the story. The Mail published a front page lead revealing that Biko had died of brain damage, causing Kruger to demand a clamp down on the press.
Under Sparks’ editorship, Mervyn Reese would uncover details of the information scandal -the use of government slush funds to buy good press for itself by, among other things establishing the Citzen newspaper and buying stakes in publicaitons around the world.
Sparks literally took the identity of Rees’ source, codename ‘Myrtle’, to the grave with him, saying: ‘Her identity shall remain a secret forever’.
With its wide coverage of politics, including the activities of the then banned ANC, Sparks grew the black readership of the Rand Daily Mail, but instead of being rewarded, he found himself at odds with management once more.
He clashed with Clive Kinsley who told Sparks “what he wanted were white readers, especially white woman readers, who he felt made the key household purchases and interested advertisers.”
Sparks was eventually fired and turned to writing for The Observer, The Washington Post and a host of other foreign titles, as a South African correspondent.
He described his work in the 1980s as being that of a ‘war correspondent’ as violence flared up between the state and the re-emerging struggle in the form of the United Democratic Front.
He accompanied Winnie Mandela, who had been banished by the government to Brandfort, in the then Orange Free State, on a journey by car and plane to visit Nelson Mandela.
In the 1990s, he reported on visits by white South Africans to the ANC in exile, where he was impressed by the diplomatic skills of Thabo Mbeki. “He managed, with a combination of charm, reassurances and political toughness, to ensure that the ANC group did not concede a single point of importance in the joint agreement.”
He got to know Mandela, who visited him at his home. “Seldom can a journalist have been given such a vivid world scoop in such a relaxed atmosphere in his own home as Mandela gave me that day.”
Based on that interview, he wrote a 20 000 word for the New Yorker unde the headline ‘The Secret Revolution’.
Sparks would ultimately be disillusioned with the ANC in government, writing scathingly in his Business Day column about the descent of the post-apartheid administration into the mire of corruption under Jacob Zuma.
While a very busy editor and journalist, Sparks found the time to write several monumental works, among them: The Mind of South Africa and Tomorrow is Another Country.
He would, in his final years, find himself the target of a twitter storm after he stated that he believed Verwoerd to have been a ‘clever’ leader. In the flash of a few tweets, Sparks’ lifetime of opposition to apartheid, his thousands of column centimetres of copy denouncing Verwoerd and his ghoulish apartheid vision would be dismissed in favour of cheap social media shots.
He was a little bewildered by the fuss. Did his record not speak for itself? The answer is, of course, that it did. More than that, it was a record that invested journalism under apartheid with more than a little moral dignity.