This award is named after an admirable South African journalist who served as editor of Izwi Labantu (Voice of the People) between 1898 and 1908. Soga is remembered for the journalistic credo which he promoted: “Gainst the wrong that needs resistance; For the good that lacks assistance.”
This lifetime achiever award recognises impeccable ethics, craft excellence and a sustained and extraordinary contribution to newspaper journalism. The South African public will have been enriched by the winning person. All these requirements are amply met by Allister Haddon Sparks.
Sparks has been a journalist for 60 years. Born in Cradock on 10 March 1933, he started on the Queenstown Daily Representative in 1951, served as sub-editor under Donald Woods at the Daily Dispatch, spent some time on papers in the UK and Zimbabwe, and won the Nieman Fellowship to Harvard in 1963.
He joined the Rand Daily Mail (RDM) in 1967, spending 23 years there, including rising to editorship in 1977. From then onward until 1981 when he was dismissed for the impact of his liberal politics on the paper’s profits, he oversaw exceptional journalism at the publication. This was in no small part because of his courage in publishing powerful stories that documented the venal character of apartheid. When the government lied about the cause of Steve Biko’s death, the RDM reported that he had been murdered in police custody. For telling this truth, Sparks was dragged before the Press Council at the time and forced to apologise.
Another major RDM story under his editorship was the detailed and dogged chronicle of the Infogate Scandal, which uncovered the regime’s mega-budget secret propaganda projects at home and abroad. One such exposed escapade was the founding of The Citizen with state funds in an attempt to kill the RDM. Revealing the extent of the rot meant that Sparks was continuously trying to dodge surveillance, although it ultimately turned out that his own secretary was a spy for the security police. In the course of his career, Sparks faced down six court cases, learning that the press not only had check facts for the sake of journalistic accuracy – in addition, he notes, “you were also preparing your court defense at the same time”.
For his pains, Sparks ran foul of his bosses. “The worst part of running a newspaper like the Rand Daily Mail was the increasing animosity of my own proprietors,” he has observed. Recalling those years, he is quoted as saying: “I took a battering, emotional battering. A stressful life. It took a toll on my family, on my family life. Not easy to do. I mean, there are easier ways to earn a living. But once you’re in it, you have to keep at it.” Yet Sparks has also been quick to acknowledge that not just him, but “an awful lot of journalists, especially black journalists went through really tough times”.
After being fired from the RDM, Sparks became a reporter again, serving as South African correspondent for the Washington Post (USA), The Observer (UK) and NRC Handelsblad (The Netherlands). In this period, both he and his wife were arrested when he quoted the then-banned Winnie Mandela in one of his dispatches.
In recognition of his work, Sparks was nominated for the US Pulitzer Prize in 1985, and he won the UK’s David Blundy Award for foreign reporting. He has also been honoured with the John Manyarara award from the Media Institute for Southern Africa, the International Journalism Award from InterPress Service News Agency, the Pringle award for feature writing and Harvard’s Louis M Lyon award.
Appointed as an SABC board member in 1995, Sparks subsequently resigned to work in the broadcaster’s newsroom, where he served as editor-in-chief. He describes his challenge at SABC as having to revive a demotivated newsroom, sharpen the immediate news and launch a 24-hour Africa news channel.
His analytical bent led to his first book, titled The Mind of South Africa which won a Sanlam Literary Award. His second book, Tomorrow is Another Country, became the basis of a TV series by BBC2 and the Discovery Channel. Subsequently, he published Beyond the Miracle: Inside the New South Africa and a fourth book called First Drafts: South African History in the Making, being collection of a decade’s worth of his writing.
In his retirement, Sparks became an adviser to the Standard Bank, although he continues to write regularly for the South African press.
Quality has long been a bugbear for this former editor. In 1995, he told a conference: “It is really no secret that our reporting standards are stretched and are declining to perhaps the lowest point I have seen in my 44 years as a journalist…. We are not making adequate use of the courts. Reporters are not getting out into the countryside.” A few years earlier, he had set up the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism and served as its Executive Director until 1997. In that capacity, though, he recognised that “It is all very well giving good courses to journalists, but when you send them back into defective newsrooms, all the benefit drains into the sand and is gone.”
Ever outspoken, Sparks is on record as being repelled by what he calls “craven obsequiousness” in the USA’s media in regard to coverage of the second Gulf War, and he has especially hammered the “meek and uncritical way television and even the great newspapers have reported and commented on the decision to go to war in Iraq”.
His view is that journalists need to beware of becoming part of the elite which they cover, and be sure to maintain a challenging spirit.
Sparks’ own direct experience has taught him that “if the media is muzzled or restricted, then information will be withheld from the public and the public will be uninformed or misinformed, at which point democracy shrivels and poor governance goes uncorrected”. On the other hand, already back in 1997 he cautioned South African journalists: “We have reached the obsessive state of thinking that every public figures has to be demolished, every politician is dishonest, that every interview must be a high noon confrontation.”
This is a person who says that stories like poverty, AIDS, joblessness and crime are also, in a sense, good news. “These problems, while severe, are the problems of many developing nations and democracies.” In his view, “when you have just escaped Armageddon, is no time to become a pessimist”. And yet, “good journalism should never be propagandistic.”
Sparks is a journalist whose life is a tribute to this very philosophy. In a year that marks the 20th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration – an event that gave the world May 3 as World Press Freedom Day, it is wholly fitting to recognise his sterling contribution towards free, independent and quality journalism in South Africa.