Obituary: Allister Sparks, crusading South African journalist who challenged apartheid

Allister Sparks, prominent South African journalist who challenged apartheid. Born March 10, 1933, Cathcart, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Died September 19, 2016, Johannesburg, South Africa, aged 83.
Allister Sparks shares a joke with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. Picture: Rodger BoschAFP/Getty Images)Allister Sparks shares a joke with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. Picture: Rodger BoschAFP/Getty Images)
Allister Sparks shares a joke with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. Picture: Rodger BoschAFP/Getty Images)

Allister Sparks was the crusading editor of The Rand Daily Mail, the major voice of liberal opposition to the white Pretoria government and a champion of majority rule, when he revealed that the apartheid opponent Steve Biko had been beaten to death by the police in 1977.

His paper later exposed a secret offensive by the authorities against the mainstream news media in which a slush fund was used to establish a government-friendly newspaper, The Citizen, to counter The Rand Daily Mail and to buy stakes in other publications. That revelation led to the resignation of President John Vorster in 1979.

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In 1981, with The Rand Daily Mail ailing financially, the owners fired Mr Sparks as part of an effort, he said, to “lower the paper’s voice and to shift the emphasis more toward white readers and less toward black readers.” The newspaper went out of business in 1985.

Sparks went on to become what he described as a war correspondent inSouth Africa for The Washington Post and The Observer in Britain, covering the violence that erupted between the government and the United Democratic Front, the leading anti-apartheid group.

Officially a foreign correspondent then, Sparks was nearly prosecuted for quoting Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, whose husband, Nelson Mandela, was the imprisoned leader of the African National Congress.

He befriended Mandela and, on the basis of an extensive interview, wrote a 20,000-word article for The New Yorker in 1994, titled “The Secret Revolution”, on the historic negotiations that ended white minority rule. After Mr Mandela became president, Mr Sparks served under him as the television news and current affairs editor of the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

He also wrote six books, among them The Mind of South Africa, published in 1990; Tomorrow Is Another Country (1995); and a memoir, The Sword and the Pen, published this year.

With the end of apartheid, Mr Sparks was by no means forgiving of the corruption and ineptitude of the current, predominantly black administration of President Jacob Zuma (Zuma said this week that Sparks had “made his mark in the fight for a free South Africa and proved that the pen is mightier than the sword”.).

Sparks caused a storm late in life by describing former Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, an architect of apartheid, as a “clever” leader. He later recanted. But after. Sparks’s death, his colleagues said that his overall record had, as Ray Hartley, a South African journalist, put it, “invested journalism under apartheid with more than a little moral dignity”.

Allister Haddon Sparks was born on March 10, 1933, in Cathcart, in Eastern Cape Province, to Harold Sparks, a farmer, and the former Bernice Stephen. Raised among blacks in a rural area bordering a tribal reserve, his first language was Xhosa.

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A fifth-generation South African, Sparks was descended from the country’s original British settlers, who arrived in 1820. He thus belonged to a minority within a minority: English-speaking whites were outnumbered both by South Africa’s black majority and by the Afrikaner progeny of Dutch homesteaders.

After graduating from Queen’s College in Queenstown, he was hired by the newspaper The Queenstown Daily Representative. After stints elsewhere in Africa and in Britain, he joined The Rand Daily Mail as a political correspondent and columnist. He became an assistant editor there in 1967 and editor of its sister paper, The Sunday Express (which also later closed), in 1974 before attaining the editorship of The Daily Mail in 1977.

He is survived by four sons, Michael Simon, Andrew and Julian; five grandsons; and one granddaughter.

“Journalism became my education and my intellectual salvation,” Sparks wrote in his memoir, “even as my country transformed from a racist police state to a nonracial democracy.”

He recalled covering Parliament in Cape Town as particularly eye-opening, writing, “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.”

But he was foremost a shoe-leather reporter. In the mid-1960s, when two leaders of the armed struggle against apartheid, Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe, fled from their South African prison cell to neighboring Botswana, Mr. Sparks doggedly tracked them down and banged on the door of their redoubt.

“My name is Allister Sparks,” he recalled saying. “I’m from The Rand Daily Mail, and I want to talk to Arthur and Harold.”

They agreed, and Sparks got another scoop.

Copyright New York Times 2016. Distributed by NYT Syndication Services