Allister Sparks.  Picture: JEREMY GLYN
ONE COUNTRY: Allister Sparks had a mighty journalistic career spanning 66 years. File picture: ROBERT BOTHA

ALLISTER Sparks had a mighty journalistic career spanning 66 years, but his core insight about SA was forged as a 19-year-old reporter interviewing the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, in a Queenstown hotel room and it remained unchanged until he died on Monday.

In his recently published biography, The Sword and the Pen, he relates the extraordinary story of how it happened that a teenager came to interview Verwoerd, then a little-known politician, and how Verwoerd laid out his then astounding plan for the country.

The plan involved something unknown at the time called "separate development", which was then not even official policy of the National Party (NP).

Sparks relates how he was "baffled" by the idea and indicates he was sceptical about whether it could possibly work.

Verwoerd told him, "There won’t be peace in this country, my boy, until the black man has his own countries."

"What could he be talking about," Sparks writes. "How on earth could black people ‘have their own countries’ when they were here, all around us in racially mixed South Africa."

Sparks had at the time already been a journalist for two years at Queenstown’s Daily Representative. Verwoerd was then a senator, an unelected position. He had been appointed by president DF Malan and was yet to take over as leader of the NP. The party’s victory in 1948 was considered an aberration attributed to post-war exhaustion, so Verwoerd was dispatched to drum up support in rural towns.

Sparks writes that he always regarded Verwoerd as the "Lenin rather than the Stalin of apartheid, who not only refined the ideology, but set about trying to implement it with disastrous humanitarian results".

The speech coincided with the radicalisation of the ANC, and Sparks relates how he witnessed the campaign unfold in Queenstown, establishing a poignant counterpoint to the bewildering racial dreams of Verwoerd.

"It was an astonishing situation: here were two national groups occupying the same space, but living in different worlds. This indeed was the essence of the South African malaise."

He goes on to write "whites didn’t know what was going on in the black world because they didn’t want to know … the system of enforced racial segregation made it easy for them to avoid that uncomfortable knowledge".

And then the clincher: "The only way to penetrate that wall of studied avoidance lay in my own hands, those of the reporter."

For the rest of his years, Sparks sought to close that gap in a huge variety of roles, including as editor of the Rand Daily Mail, as an important foreign correspondent and as an author.

It was responsible for how repulsed he was by apartheid and his at times lonely crusade within white SA as a life-time opponent of the system. It underpinned his decision to publish devastating exposés of the brutality and inhumanity of apartheid including the death of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko. And it underpinned his conviction that the apartheid government was not only intellectually bankrupt, but morally wanting, as illustrated by another great scoop, the Muldergate saga.

Ironically, it was also in a way responsible for his sacking as editor of the Rand Daily Mail, whose owners wanted the newspaper to focus only on a suburban, white readership in the face of his attempts to position it as a multiracial publication.

And it was responsible for his cordial friendship with Nelson Mandela, whose personal campaign to bring South Africans together intersected with Sparks’s belief. Their base philosophies were probably different, but on this particularly they heartily agreed, as he did, in some ways, with former president Thabo Mbeki.

It probably kept him going through four books, and diligently writing his Business Day column every week until the age of 83, filing his last column just a few weeks before his death.

It was also somewhat responsible for Sparks’s disavowal of President Jacob Zuma and a sense that SA faces a more critical "second transition". He ends his book with the idea of the end of the ANC’s rule coming incrementally, city by city, province by province, "each change softened by coalitions before reaching national level".

"That is what gives me hope that we shall have a soft passage through our second transition into the fulfilment of the rainbow nation dream, which is of a nation of great diversity that can live together in harmony and periodically change its government peacefully."

It’s hard to know now how many people covet Sparks’s dream. The critical moment of his late career was a passing comment that his old nemesis, Verwoerd, was a "smart politician". His years of apartheid opposition were conflated into bursts of 140 character outrage by venomous twitterati.

The essentially liberal notion of seeing the world in a granular way in which it is possible to recognise strengths and weaknesses of people and appreciate the complexity of humanity is a fading art. Yet, Sparks’s legacy holds out hope that, at root, humanity recognises itself in the end.

A memorial is being planned for Friday, October 14, at 11am at the Braamfontein Crematorium.