Allister Sparks, Tony Leon and the 'smart politician' question

A brief history of the former Rand Daily Mail editor's opposition to the liberal opposition in post-apartheid South Africa

In his tribute to outgoing leader Helen Zille at the DA’s Federal Congress, earlier this month, the veteran journalist and former Rand Daily Mail editor, Allister Sparks remarked:

“I’ve now been working as a journalist in this country for 64 years. That is from the era of DF Malan to that of Jacob Zuma. In the course of which I have encountered some really smart politicians. The likes of Harry Lawrence, Bernard Friedman, Margaret Ballanger, Helen Suzman, Zach de Beer, Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, Marais Steyn, Japie Basson, and, yes… Hendrik Verwoerd. And also an incredible number of dull and stupid ones. But over all those years I have to say, objectively viewed, and setting aside my personal friendship I rate Helen Zille as the smartest political tactician of all.”

Sparks’ ironic inclusion of the legendarily clever ‘architect of apartheid’ in his list of ‘smart politicians’ from the old (white) parliament, combined with his failure to mention any (black) post-apartheid ones, famously provoked a great deal of controversy. But what went less noticed was his exclusion of former DA leader Tony Leon from his clever politician list.

This omission did not go completely unremarked however. As Leon himself noted in his column for The Times this was hardly surprising given that Sparks had “never approved of my leadership of the opposition.” Indeed, the conflict between the two men dated back to well before Leon’s election as Democratic Party leader in 1994. 

In an article for The Daily Mail written a few months after the unbanning of the African National Congress in February 1990, Sparks noted that there were three choices facing the DP: It could join forces with the National Party; it could form an alliance with the ANC; or it could follow the advice of the Sunday Times to “continue to exist as an uncompromising custodian of liberal values, a watchdog, even if its parliamentary representation is reduced to one, a la Helen Suzman.”

This third option, Sparks noted, “has an instinctive appeal to those who have supported the DP and its predecessors over the years. It has about it a fine ring of remaining true to one’s principles, of not bending to expediency, even of demonstrating one’s non-racialism by being as ready to criticise tomorrow’s black rulers as one was of yesterday’s white ones.”

For Sparks it was however the “worst of the three options.” Its appeal was that the role was familiar and easy. “Nice and easy and fatal. One of the most immutable laws of politics is that a party which fails to adjust to changing times will stagnate and die. Remember the United Party!”

Joining forces with the NP, now that it had adopted many DP policies – though having the merit of involving the DP actively in the transition process and reinforcing that party against the Conservative threat – was a non-starter. This left the option Sparks himself clearly favoured, “linking up with the ANC.” This need not be in the form of a merger or coalition but rather a pact whereby the two organisations, though still retaining their own policies, “would work together for the achievement of a common goal – a non-racial, multi-party democracy.”

Such a pact, Sparks argued, “would do much to promote the kind of democratic culture we desperately need if a multi-party system is to succeed”; it would “stabilise the democratic centre”; and, calm the “almost hysterical fears of many whites.” (Daily Mail July 25 1990)

Although this proposal was rejected by Tony Leon, then DP MP for Houghton, it clearly resonated with certain other members of the DP’s Parliamentary Caucus. At the party’s national congress in September 1990 – where Zach de Beer was elected party leader - a faction within the party unsuccessfully proposed that DP members should be able to take up dual ANC membership; and pushed for an alliance with the ANC.

The DP MP for Sandton, Dave Dalling, was one of the proponents of these proposals. Tony Leon spoke against them, as did Harry Schwarz, the MP for Yeoville subsequently appointed by President FW de Klerk as South Africa’s Ambassador to Washington DC. Schwarz’s reference to the proposal as a “Warsaw pact” seems to have caused particular offence to Sparks, and was often referenced by him thereafter.

In the Ward 16 Houghton-Killarney municipal by-election in November 1991 the DP candidate Geoffrey Klass was defeated by Sam Moss, standing as an independent. This was a huge shock to the DP given that the ward was the first Johannesburg council seat won by the Progressive Federal Party back in 1972. The “ANC connections” of senior DP politicians were blamed, in some circles, for the defeat.

In a column that appeared in The Star on November 20 1991 Sparks passionately attacked the “conservatives” in the DP for launching a “guerrilla war against the more progressive elements in their party.” He equated those DP politicians opposed to a toenadering with the ANC with the United Party verkramptes of old.

“The sniping [of this group] has reached a new intensity in recent weeks. First there was Robin Carlisle’s motion of no confidence in David Dalling as DP Chief Whip on the grounds that Dalling was leaning too close to the ANC, then Tony Leon’s attempt to blame the DP’s loss of the Houghton-Killarney by-election on ‘the ANC tendencies of the party’. Leon’s charge is rich. In two years he and his cohorts he once led in the Johannesburg City Council have managed to reduce Helen Suzman’s old constituency to losing ground. No mean achievement, that. Having accomplished it they are looking for scapegoats. And with the scurrility of old swart gevaar campaigners they are targeting those members of the DP who want to build bridges to the ANC, saying they scared off the doughty voters of Houghton.”

Sparks further accused Leon & Co. of practicing “recidivist politics” and wanting to “pander to white prejudices by turning their backs on the country’s most representative black leaders.” In a passage which clearly reflect his own personal philosophy Sparks commented:

“Majority rule, which means black majority rule since blacks are the overwhelming majority, is the only realistic alternative to apartheid. If we are lucky it will be a non-racial, democratic form of majority rule, meaning it will be launched in a spirt of reconciliation rather than retribution. The only logical role, indeed the historic mission, of white liberals is to build bridges to what is obviously the dominant black political organisation in order to achieve that non-racial goal. Yet here are these spoilers trying to stop it.”

In a letter in reply (November 22 1991) Leon wrote that Sparks’ “use of extreme epithets and odious comparisons reinforces the intellectual flaccidity of his radicalism, which is dressed up as a species of ersatz liberalism.” Describing Sparks’ labelling efforts as “sinister” Leon said he took issue with Sparks’ “smug line in political correctness, his radical-chic view of the new South Africa. He envisages the appropriate posture for white liberals thus: Lying prostrate before the ‘dominant black political organisation’.”

Following the March 17 1992 referendum – for which both the NP and the DP had successfully campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote – the future of the DP looked grim indeed. In a confidential document mooting the possibility of the formation of a new centrist party under the leadership of FW de Klerk, Leon noted that the DP was failing to make inroads among black, Coloured and Indian voters while its white support was shrinking alarmingly. Leon wrote that it was not possible for the DP to enter into an alliance with either the NP or the ANC at national level as this would tear the party apart. (Sunday Times April 5 1992)

The party leadership however favoured carrying on as before. As the party’s chairman, Ken Andrew, cautioned: “I think it is far too early to be anything but independent at this stage. It is too early to judge whether the NP or the ANC should be trusted with liberal democratic values and interests. Simply because the NP has moved away from apartheid does not mean that in other areas of policy, it is efficient and clear-headed.”

Later that month it was announced that Dalling and four other DP MPs had crossed over to the ANC. In a press release issued on April 21 1992 the ANC stated that it was “delighted to announce that Dave Dalling, Pierre Cronje, Jan Van Eck, Jannie Momberg and Robert Haswell have all decided to join the ANC. They have worked closely with the ANC for many years and their membership formalises a long-standing relationship which has earned them great respect in our communities and among our members.”

In an article published in The Star on May 8 1992 Sparks said that he was “saddened” to see the DP disintegrating. However, its fate had been sealed on the day it had rejected his advice to from a pact with the ANC and decided to soldier on as before.

The DP’s crisis, he wrote, is a “crisis of success: its ideals have triumphed to the point where they are now a common cause, so that the DP no longer has a distinctive role to play. It has fought for democracy, and now that democracy is coming it is going to be swamped out of existence by it.”

Sparks predicted that it would be very difficult for the DP to find a niche between a reformed “conservative, free enterprise” NP and a “social democratic” ANC. In one-person-one vote elections run on a proportion representation list system it was not going to make a 5% cut-off and was unlikely to even secure even half that. If it did manage to scrape into the first non-racial parliament, on this diminished basis, it would have only “token representation.”

The DP, Sparks suggested, was finished: “DP politicians who want to play a role in the new democracy have little choice but to bail out. The first five MPs have already joined the ANC; and another half dozen are likely to follow in time. Half a dozen more will end up in the National Party. A few will stay on to play a role in the interim government and then retire honourably. A hard core of loyalists will hang in until history overtakes them.”

In the 1994 elections the DP, under De Beer’s leadership, won only 1,7% of the vote securing a mere 7 seats in the 400 member National Assembly.

In a column for The Star on June 15 1994 Sparks once again claimed vindication. The reason for the “decline and threatened demise” of the DP, he wrote, is that the party had fatally failed to listen to his warning in 1990 that it must form a pact with the ANC. Instead, while the party had “established itself and built its reputation as a party of protest against an oppressive system” at the “critical moment of transition it shrank from identifying with the black struggle to replace that system. This left it in political limbo, without a clearly defined role.”

Sparks concluded his column with a last piece of advice for the DP. “Is there a role for white liberals in the new South Africa?” he asked. “Yes, I believe there is, but not in the form of a cold, hard-eyed Thatcherite party. If the DP wants to have a future it must purge itself of that tendency and rediscover its soul. It must find its place on the side of the liberators and builders of the new society, not against them.”

In his letter in reply acting DP leader Tony Leon noted that “Political oblivion and marginalised impotence is the bleak epitaph which Allister Sparks writes on the tombstone he constructed for the Democratic Party. I obviously would not have accepted the interim leadership of the Democratic Party if I shared Sparks’s gloomy Spenglerian vision of the party’s future.”

He added:

“In my eight years in representative politics I have seen many South African political fortunes rise and decline. Equally, I have seen events and political rebirths confound even the sharpest pundits and severest critics. Overseas, the trend has been even starker. I have little doubt that the political pendulum will swing again. My limited experience suggests it always does. I am certain, though, that this will not happened without a determined, innovative and action-orientated approach to which my colleagues and I are committed.”

During this period Sparks’ personal efforts to build bridges to the ANC did not go unrewarded. In remarks defending Sparks, made on the side-lines of the DA congress, Helen Zille stated, "We all know he [Sparks] was a passionate supporter of the ANC and in fact, advised Nelson Mandela on communication strategies and other strategies, as an advisor, (and) not as a journalist."

In May 1993 Sparks was on the draft list of nominees to serve on the new SABC Board. However President FW de Klerk rejected his name along with several others, a decision that provoked a huge outcry from the ANC in opposition. In November that year Business Day reported that Sparks had accepted a nomination from the Sandton Branch of the ANC to be placed on the ANC’s national list of candidates for South Africa’s first non-racial elections.

He told the newspaper that he had been contacted by a third party who asked “rather hurriedly whether I would accept my name going forward, to which I assented on condition that, when I return from my overseas trip, I would investigate all the implications.” He added that he was “very keen” to retain his independence. “I have never in my life belonged to a political party and, if it is a requirement that I join the ANC, then I would have to reconsider the position because it would be a big step for me.” (Business Day November 26 1993)

When the final ANC election lists were published at the end of January 1994 Sparks was placed in 142nd position on the party’s national list, a highly marginal placement. On February 19 1994 he announced that he was withdrawing his candidacy. In a column the following week he commented:

“With various withdrawals and rationalisations by the time I withdrew I was number 126 – clearly an electable position requiring a 63 percent ANC vote to gain a seat. The prospect of being a member of South Africa’s first democratic parliament held great appeal. We journalists spend our lives recording history; we seldom have the opportunity to participate in the making of it. However, acceptance of such a position might have been seen to be incompatible with my role as an independent journalist, and so I was forced to choose.”

He noted that he had originally accepted the nomination as he felt it to be a “remarkable gesture of the spirit of non-racialism which he was reluctant to reject.” However, he had decided to “remain where I am, working to uplift the standard of journalism in our country through the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism which I founded in 1992, because of a deep conviction that a free, independent and professionally competent media is absolutely fundamental to the proper functioning of a democratic system.”

In June 1995 Sparks was appointed by President Nelson Mandela to the SABC Board. Two years later, in May 1997, he was appointed Editor-in-Chief of SABC television news – a move widely seen at the time as part of a concerted government effort to bring news at the public broadcaster under the direction of ANC-sympathetic journalists. In December 1998 it was announced that Sparks was leaving the public broadcaster on completion of his contract.

Over the following years Sparks continued to express a deep aversion to the liberal opposition in South Africa. Asked by Chris Barron in a June 2003 interview whether the relationship between President Thabo Mbeki and DA leader Tony Leon had been bad for South Africa Sparks replied:

“I think it has. Leon’s style has brought the worst out in Mbeki. We need a vigilant watchdog, but you can do that without getting up black peoples noses the way he does.”

Following the announcement, in late 2006, that Leon was to resign as DA leader, Sparks conceded that Leon had achieved some “notable successes.” These included rescuing the party from “near obscurity”; building it into an “effective watchdog”; and burying the NP. However, he added that Leon had “failed in one singular respect. His combative style and didactic manner, combined with a political rigidity and general lack of warmth and charm so essential in African politics, caused him to be strongly disliked by the ANC and the large majority of black South Africans.”

He further accused the DA having shifted to the right, “enabling the ANC to accuse it, not without justification, of having abandoned the white liberalism of its progenitors during the struggle against apartheid and becoming a white right-wing party.” (The Star, November 29 2006)

Given the history between the men it is not completely surprising then that Sparks would omit Leon from his list of smart politicians; or that there was a whiff of schadenfreude in Leon’s comments on the racial controversy that flared up over Sparks' Verwoerd remarks.