I wish I’d seen Allister Sparks one last time. I wish I’d gone to his birthday party earlier this year. I wish I’d been able to drag him out to lunch. Too late now and one of SA’s truly great journalists has gone. Perhaps more than most, Allister did it all. He edited and he reported, both with great distinction. The first time I met him I was a schoolboy in Umtata. Transkei had just been declared independent and all the South African media were in town for the big story. I was especially privileged because the four giants of that era had lunch at my house and used my telephone to file their stories. My sister Wendy was married then to Donald Woods, at the time parliamentary correspondent for the Daily Dispatch. He brought along Allister, Stanley Uys and a man they all revered, Anthony Delius. It was the day I decided I wanted to be a journalist. The phone was in the corridor and I listened as each of them called their newspapers and dictated their stories. Actually, what I later learnt is that they mostly composed three or four paragraphs of their own and almost every one of them ended the call with the words “pick up Sapa”.
They’ve all gone now, but it is comforting to know that there are more on the way — serious, mischievous, colourful, deceitful, conniving, brilliant and brave. God help South African governments who think this country’s journalists are pushovers. Allister proved that wrong in many ways. Not many people become editors, as he did of the Rand Daily Mail, and are then fired and resurrect themselves as reporters and columnists. People in SA may not have known it but after being cast into the South African journalistic wilderness by his bosses, he became a cracking good correspondent for a huge array of important foreign papers. I used to read him, when I lived overseas, in The International Herald Tribune. More than anyone, it was Allister who told the daily South African story best to the rest of the world. I thought Ray Hartley, himself a former editor become writer again, did a wonderful job, in obvious haste, on the website he runs, last night. Appropriately, it’s called the Rand Daily Mail. Imagine what a powerful beast that newspaper could have become had it not been for its spineless owners. Here’s Hartley remembering Allister Sparks: A personal note
There’ll be other tributes but perhaps let Allister speak for himself. Here he is last December, just after President Jacob Zuma fired his finance minister Nhlanhla Nene. Enjoy: At home and abroad — Zuma has blown his credibility as a president And as our universities again begin to roar and burn and as students rampage and disrupt and destroy, here is Allister roughly a year ago when the campus unrest was at its height. He is in no doubt in this searing analysis about what is wrong and who is to blame: At home and abroad: The ANC — stuck in the 1960s, disconnected from the youth
Indeed. And now, as we know today, students and university authorities are squaring up to each other in what promises to be yet another fruitless attempt to get some justice for poorer students and some kind of financially sound future for our universities. Only the state can help but the state, under Zuma, is all but broken. Higher education minister Blade Nzimande has told university councils to set fee increases for next year themselves. A cop-out in other words. I know councils normally do this but they would expect backing from government. It isn’t there now and it certainly won’t be when the poo hits the fan. I used this fine piece from Rhodes University researcher Richard Pithouse last week but in light of renewed protest it is even more relevant. Pithouse asks if the various campus “movements” — from Rhodes Must Fall to other “decolonisation” efforts, are unified and focused enough to succeed. On their own they are probably not. But given one stupid act, or one thought or mind to unite them, I reckon they’ll be fine. Nzimande or Zuma are bound to stuff this up: The turn to burning in South Africa