In his autobiography The Sword and the Pen, renowned newspaper journalist and editor, Allister Sparks writes about his eventful life at the rock face of our turbulent politics…
Words: Leon Marshall
Pictures: Leon Marshall & Supplied
As with many of us hacks from an older era, he landed in journalism by chance. It was a time before journalism schools, and for him it turned out a happy coincidence when, in 1951, in response to a schoolmate’s passing suggestion, he joined the Daily Representative newspaper in Queenstown, Eastern Cape, where he grew up on an isolated farm. He wanted to go to university after matric, but the editor in his Scottish accent told him, “Don’t do that son, they’ll ruin ye. I’ll teach ye all ye need to know.”
I’m chatting to Allister about his new book, The Sword and the Pen, on the veranda of his house in Johanesburg not far from the Liliesleaf Museum and Heritage Site, the farmstead where Nelson Mandela once hid and where the top structure of the then banned ANC was arrested in a security-police swoop in 1963.
“I came into journalism when D F Malan was prime minister and 66 years later I’m still here, with Jacob Zuma as president. It’s been a remarkable passage of history and I count myself very fortunate that I could witness it and in a sense have been part of it,” he tells me.
The Sword part of his book’s title refers to a blade that came down to him from an ancestor, who was involved in the 19th century frontier wars in the Eastern Cape. The Pen part is much about the dramatic political events he reported on over the years.
It is also about his own part in those events, having been fired as editor of the Rand Daily Mail before it got shut down, largely as a result of a withdrawal of advertisers’ support and the newspaper company bosses’ own reservations about its liberal editorial stance.
I tell him what I found most arresting in the book was his recounting of the mighty political shifts and upheavals that preceded and followed our transition. Especially because of the way he straddled the political divide by writing about what was happening inside South Africa, as well as about the then banned ANC, which naturally invited the constant attention of the security police.
He explains that after being fired as editor, he became a correspondent for several leading papers abroad.
“I suddenly found myself to be a foot soldier again. It took me to the frontline where the security forces and revolutionaries were coming head to head. Importantly, it allowed me to meet with the exiled leadership of the ANC and to give their side of the story, albeit strictly for foreign consumption as the security laws prohibited quoting them inside the country. One of the most important things to me was getting to know those ANC leaders so early on… Oliver Tambo, Thabo Mbeki, Joe Slovo… the figures who had such a key part in shaping the party while still in exile. However much one tries to wish it away, propaganda has the effect of demonising the other side. I thought I was immune to it, but always there were doubts. Being able to meet those ANC leaders helped me to balance my reporting and overcome those prejudices from early on. It brought home to me how important it is to always hear the other side.”
As a journalist he also had the fortune of hosting Mandela at his home for a day and getting inside information on his life and events that lead to his release. It gave him one of the great news scoops of the time.
Allistair goes on to talk in general terms about what has happened since the end of the Mandela era. “I’ll use the word ‘disappointment’ rather than ‘disillusionment’. So much damage has been done, it’s going to take years to fix. But it’ll be fixed. It’ll happen through a jolt from the electorate. The ANC is likely to lose its outright majority, and this will lead to a coalition government. And that’ll bring the next big transition.”
He thinks this over for a moment. “Well, that’s my opinion. As you know, hindsight is always far more correct than forecasting.”
The Sword and the Pen (R300) is published by Jonathan Ball