Rest in Peace: Allister Sparks (1933 – 2016)

21 Sep 2016
Rest in Peace: Allister Sparks (1933 – 2016)

PEN South Africa is deeply saddened by the news that journalist, editor and author Allister Sparks passed away on Monday at the age of 83.

Sparks has been a member of PEN South Africa since 2004 and has written a number of books, including his memoir The Sword and the Pen: Six decades on the political frontier, which was published in March this year, and the award-winning title The Mind of South Africa and its internationally acclaimed companion, Tomorrow is Another Country. His publisher and friend Jeremy Boraine of Jonathan Ball Publishers has commented that Sparks “knew everything and he had interviewed premiers and presidents. He had covered politics for 66 years, and that to me is his legacy.”

The South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) has paid tribute to Sparks, writing that he “leaves behind a proud legacy of fearless journalism that seeks to change society for the good.”

In 1962 Sparks won a Nieman Fellowship to study at Harvard, in 1979 he was named the International Editor of the Year and in 2011 he received the Allan Kirkland Soga Lifetime Achiever Award at the Mondi Shanduka Newspaper Awards. Sparks succeeded PEN SA Vice-President Raymond Louw as editor of the Rand Daily Mail between 1977 and 1981.

Louw had the following to say about Sparks’s 66 year career in journalism:

“Allister Sparks’s contribution to raising the standard of journalism in South Africa was immense. His reporting was excellent. He was a keen political observer and analyst and a courageous and immaculate writer and investigator. The display and reporting of the Muldergate, or Infogate, scandal which told of the use of secret government funds to finance The Citizen newspaper and the purchase of other papers internationally to combat the criticism of the National Party’s apartheid policies was a masterly piece of journalism which ran for five days in the Rand Daily Mail and led to the resignation of Prime Minister John Vorster. The story had been broken by the Sunday Express but the Mail filled in the shattering details of the devious machinations of the heavyweight government plotters. The work of Allister and Rex Gibson, editor of the Sunday Express, on that dangerous exercise was recognised internationally with the award of the International Editor of the Year Award to each of them. For Allister it was one of many awards showered on him. But his greatest achievement in fostering journalistic excellence was the founding of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism with Witwatersrand University in 1992.

He was a prolific writer and in addition to his busy journalistic schedule – apart from the newspapers that exploited his skills — wrote for the Washington Post in the United States, The Observer in Britain, the NR Handelsblad in The Netherlands and was as long time correspondent of The Economist. He wrote several books on the politics of South African culminating on his birthday in March in the story of his 66 years’ political reporting career, The Sword and the Pen, which enjoyed spectacular sales.”

Ray Hartley, the current editor of the Rand Daily Mail, has written an obituary for Sparks commenting that he “had a hand in almost every major story of the past five decades.”

Then, as foreign correspondent, he would write about and befriend Nelson Mandela, who would go on to describe him as “One of South Africa’s eminent journalists, whose outspoken views have served the cause of democracy in this country magnificently”.
The quote was used on the cover of Sparks’ final work, his memoir entitled The Sword and the Pen.
It is a monumental work which pays tribute to a monumental life lived in the cause of advancing freedom through courageous journalism.

Read Hartley’s obituary “Allister Sparks – man of courage, man of words” on the Sunday Times website

Business Day has reported that a memorial is being planned for Friday, October 14 from 11:00, at the Braamfontein Crematorium.

(Image courtesy of Jonathan Ball Publishers)