Inspired by Allister Sparks
Veteran journalist Allister Sparks passed away last night, September the 19th, 2016. He was in his 80’s but his death still came as a shock, partly because he had remained engaged as a professional until the end. As his publisher commented, he had given the appearance that he would keep on going for ever.
There are precious few journalists who have been able to sustain their career like he did, driven in part by his deep and passionate interest in the compelling South African story. He never gave up on it. I am grateful that he kept on as he did. For years after he ought arguably to have retired, I was able to open up a newspaper to find a well-constructed, pithy opinion piece by him, critiquing the state of the nation, often with a few well-aimed swipes at the emperor who wears no clothes. Because of his decades of history as a reporter - sixty-six years - he had a wealth of references to balance his understanding of current events. So many local South African journalists, myself included, have fallen out with their newsrooms for a range of reasons, not least being distracted by better working conditions. So many international news outfits relaxed their gaze on South Africa once apartheid was over. Not Sparks.
One of Spark’s mantras was to get journalists off the phone, of their office chairs and into the field. He used to speak, by way of an example - in a somewhat self-congratulatory tone - of how after he lost his job as an editor to become a correspondent once more, he had taken himself off to London and Lusaka to meet the exiled leaders of the ANC. There he started writing the story of the end of apartheid, which culminated in South Africa’s extraordinary 1994 transition to democracy. Other editors and reporters followed, but Sparks was telling the interesting part of the story with authority first.
My first meeting with Sparks was not the best. I was at Duke University on a mid-career mini-sabbatical of six weeks and he was attached to the university, researching and writing his books. The other foreign journalists on the programme were in awe of his mighty profile and sought an interview with the editor of the defunct Rand Daily Mail, the pioneering liberal newspaper he had moulded in his earlier career. I found myself sitting in his office on an uncomfortable chair, as he rather pompously detailed South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy through an hour and a half, to a captive audience. For me who knew the basics of the story, it was tedious. But later, he invited me to his home for dinner, and it was there I started to get to know the Allister Sparks I now want to remember, an editor, with opinions and great range, who was interested in hearing the perspectives of somebody as young and inexperienced as myself.
Somehow that connection never died, and he always welcomed me warmly when he saw me, as I imagine he did many journalists from around the world who were part of his dense web of contacts and colleagues, spun over decades and through generations of men and women reporting on political turmoil in Africa and overseas. Despite his extraordinary fame and standing, he was always available for the journalistic project, willing for example to do an in-depth interview for my documentaries, knowing that it would garner him only greater unpopularity with the ruling party. He did not shy away from the hard reality of his opinions or try to soften them with political correctness. Two years ago, when I was battling to find people to talk on camera about Jacob Zuma, he was willing to do an interview, and made this statement on the President as he entered his second term.
“He has never struck me as having great leadership qualities. I have always admired the fact that he was a peasant’s son who rose from nothing to heights in his own country and to the extent that he had any education, it was self-education, and I do think that was a remarkable achievement. But I have never seen him as being a competent leader. I don’t think he is a strategist. I think he is a crafty manipulator in politics, very cunning and quite ruthless, but I don’t believe he is a man of vision. Mandela certainly had a vision, Thabo Mbeki certainly had a vision. Mandela’s was to build the new non-racial society. Mbeki was to build a new Black middle class and to bring about economic integration as well as political integration. He articulated those very clearly, I have never heard Jacob Zuma articulate a vision of where he wants to take South Africa. I don’t believe he has such a vision.”
Sparks had a way of creating understanding of fairly complex situations in words most people can understand. The simplicity and direct purpose of his language was part of his great skill. I have his books. They will always be treasured in my small library of political literature for the wisdom inside them, the story they tell, and the fact that they invoke the memory of the author, a journalist who inspired me.
September 20, 2016 - Cape Town