Allister Sparks will be remembered for his contribution to democracy – Helen Zille

WC Premier says veteran journalist championed the media, and the crucial role of a free press

Allister Sparks will always be remembered for his contribution to our democracy

20 September 2016

In expressing condolences to the family of Allister Spark, I wish to pay tribute to a remarkable man whose well-lived life did much to shape our developing democracy.

A farmer’s son from the Eastern Cape, he was an organic intellectual, who read widely, and always immersed himself in the unfolding South African story in order to describe, analyse and influence it.  As an acclaimed journalist and author over the course of a sixty-year career, his incisive and prolific writing played an important role in the development of democracy and its institutions.  In particular, he championed the media, and the crucial role of a free press. 

In the struggle against authoritarianism, which characterised most of his life, he understood the power of the pen, and the crucial role of accurate news and analysis in empowering people to make informed choices in an open society. 

I was privileged to work under his guidance and tutelage when he was editor of the Sunday Express and the Rand Daily Mail.  Despite all the pressures he faced, Allister took the trouble to mentor me;  he sent me on tough assignments and guided me through them, worked through my copy, and helping me restructure and simplify it to get to the key points. 

But most of all he taught me about the need for courage and determination in the face of authoritarianism. He never flinched, he had a backbone of steel, and would often say:  If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.  It was a maxim that stood me in good stead throughout my later life.

He challenged authoritarianism not only in the corruption and atrocities of the apartheid state, but also among our own newspaper proprietors, who would have preferred the Rand Daily Mail to adopt a more conformist line, as they tried to increase white readership.  Allister steadfastly refused to racially pigeonhole readers, and said he was editing a newspaper that provided news and analysis that every South African needed to read if they wanted to be informed about what was really going on in our country. Eventually his conviction cost him his job as editor - but he has been thoroughly vindicated by history. Indeed, he and those who worked for him, knew that our newspapers had played a pivotal role in exposing the apartheid state, and that no-one would ever be able to say “we didn’t know”.  This was one component - and a crucial one - in the combination of forces that eventually defeated apartheid.

Allister was a tough editor and did not tolerate sloppiness or self-indulgence.  His leadership role in exposing the excesses, corruption and brutality of an apartheid state, brought great pressure on both himself and the newspaper.   He never flinched, and he expected the same response from his staff.  He did an heroic job protecting us from the pressures of “management”.

The Rand Daily Mail eventually lost the battle, but its journalists (together with many others) went on to win the war to entrench freedom of expression and the media in our new constitution.  I know it was a source of great distress to him when the democratic government began to show signs of the same kind of intolerance with the media that he had fought all his life, manifested in, for example, attempts to pass a “Secrecy Bill”.

Allister joins the great pioneers of the movement for media freedom, initiated by the 19th Century campaigners Thomas Pringle and John Fairbairn.  This movement has set in concrete, the cornerstone of this right in the very foundation of the new South Africa

Issued by Michael Mpofu, Spokesperson for Premier Helen Zille, 20 September 2016