A tribute to Allister Sparks
In its memorial tribute to Allister Sparks, the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ) aptly described him as a “media giant.” South Africa has produced many great journalists, editors and columnists, but none has straddled the entire media spectrum with Allister’s brilliance and authority.
From reporter to contemporary historian, Sparks excelled in everything in between: editor, columnist and foreign correspondent. Late in his career he ventured into a new field – an investment analyst advising major South African corporates. The Financial Mail rated him the top investment analyst in South Africa ten years running.
Notwithstanding all these great achievements, in his recently published memoir “The Sword and the Pen,” Allister says the foundation of the IAJ “is probably the most important contribution I have made.”
Allister had been involved with the Institute to the very end, but that it has survived him is also due to several dedicated individuals who have given their time for little or no material reward. The current chair of the Board, Amina Frense, has been an outstanding stalwart, serving the Institute in various capacities since its inception. It is also heartening to see Faiza Smith Abrahams, who started at the Institute holding a junior position in 1993, returning now as acting executive director.
The beginning of a personal friendship
I first met Allister in Rome in 1986 when I was working for the Inter Press Service news agency. Each year IPS awarded a prize to an outstanding journalist covering the Third World. I nominated Allister on the basis of his writings for the Washington Post and The Observer in London. His lucidly written reports from apartheid South Africa provided invaluable insights for an international audience on the inequities of an evil system. Allister duly won the prize which he received from then UN Secretary General Perez du Cuellar in New York.
I invited Allister to stop over in Rome on his way back to Johannesburg. He arrived in Rome a week before Christmas in 1986 and so started a personal friendship and professional association that was to endure for three decades. When Tessa and I and our two young sons returned to South Africa in 1991, we had come home, but had no home. Allister and Sue generously offered us their home as they were on their way to Duke University in the US where Allister was awarded a six month fellowship.
While at Duke, Allister visited the Florida based Poynter Institute, a journalism training institute which focused on providing short courses for mid-career journalists. That visit provided the inspiration for starting a similar institute in Johannesburg. Before he left Poynter (and while IAJ was still an idea!) he had sewn up a partnership agreement whereby Poynter would send its faculty members to teach courses at IAJ. Allister returned to South Africa and launched IAJ even before he had secured full funding. He invited me to join the Institute as deputy director and in June 1992 IAJ opened its doors.
In 1994 I left the Institute to take up the post of CEO of SABC radio. By a remarkable coincidence, Allister followed me to the SABC – first as a board member and then as editor of television news. Without boasting, I think we can claim to have played pivotal roles in transforming the propaganda arm of the National Party into a true public broadcaster.
When we departed from the SABC in the late 1990s, we moved in somewhat different directions and saw less of each other, though we did meet for the occasional lunch. Then, in this, his final year, we reconnected. I invited him to be a signatory to a letter to President Zuma from a group of former SABC board members and senior executives urging him to intervene in the crisis at the SABC. Allister helped craft the letter which, despite wide media coverage, was predictably ignored by Zuma. I then attended the launch of his memoirs and finally his 83rd birthday just a couple of months before he passed away.
Behind the man: an ‘ideological dilemma’
Let me share with you an observation I have of Allister. Let me caution that it is a mere observation and therefore could be subjective. I think Allister battled to come terms with what I call an “ideological dilemma.” Throughout its existence, the Rand Daily Mail was the standard bearer of liberalism in South Africa. All its editors, including the legendary Laurence Gandar, represented the best traditions of South African liberalism. Allister was cut from that cloth.
After Allister was fired as editor of the RDM unceremoniously by the proprietors of the RDM for narrow commercial interests, he moved into another world as foreign correspondent. He was part of the historic delegation led by Frederik van Zyl Slabbert that met the ANC leadership in exile in Dakar in 1987. Later, he made frequent trips to Lusaka and Harare to interview ANC leaders for his reports to the overseas papers that he was writing for. He met OR Tambo and befriended Thabo Mbeki. He told me in Harare in 1989 how different the ANC was from that he had imagined all those past years. After democracy he got to know Nelson Mandela well, making him even more of an ANC convert.
In 2004 Tessa and I hosted a dinner at home which included Allister and Helen Suzman, seated opposite each other. Towards the end of the dinner, Helen launched a total verbal onslaught on Allister. Apparently, when he was parliamentary correspondent, Allister visited Helen almost daily in her office and she gave him any amount of information and help. But in one of his books, he writes about this period but completely ignores what Helen had done for him. Allister couldn’t rebut Helen and just told her that had heard enough and she should shut up. My reading from this episode was that Allister had just embraced the ANC and in rejecting his liberal roots, he simply airbrushed Helen from his book.
Come 2016 and Allister’s ideological pendulum appeared to have swung right again. Mandela had passed on, Thabo Mbeki had become President and recalled, Zuma was taking the ANC in a new direction, putting self-interest above the national interest. Allister became disillusioned with the ANC. But even when he embraced the ANC, I don’t think that embrace was all that tight. He never came to terms with some elements in the Freedom Charter like nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy; nor did he approve of the ANC’s closeness to the Soviet Union. At his memoirs book launch he openly confirmed this, stating categorically that it was a mistake for the ANC to have allied itself with the Soviet Union and South African would have been a better country had the ANC stuck to the West. He went on to say that it was also a mistake for the ANC to take up arms.
If the pre-eminent liberal Helen tore into Allister at our home, this time it was the pre-eminent communist Ronnie Kasrils who rose to rebut Allister at the book launch. In measured terms, and much more gently than Helen, Ronnie told Allister he was wrong about the ANC and that he did not quite understand the history of anti-colonial movements in Africa.
Having been a true blue liberal for the greater part of his life, Allister ended up grappling with the ideology he had grown up with, while respecting an organisation with humane leaders that liberated South Africa from apartheid. But he found some of the core principles of that organisation at odds with his liberal world view, and I don’t think he ever managed to come to terms with that dilemma.
In conclusion let me express my disappointment that no South African university saw fit to award this media giant an honorary doctorate. Let alone his journalistic achievements, his four acclaimed books rank him amongst the foremost contemporary historians in South Africa. A posthumous award is not quite the same, but better late than never. I sincerely hope one of our universities would make amends.
I would like to thank the board and management of IAJ for affording me this opportunity to pay tribute to a great South African and a dear friend.
This is an edited version of a speech delivered at IAJ on 6 Oct 2106 on the occasion of the memorial service for Allister Sparks.