Allister Sparks and South African journalism
Tuesday 18 October 2016
Trevor Goodchild's memories of apartheid South Africa, and his reference to the autobiography of Allister Sparks, struck a chord with me, as it would - I think - with any of us who worked there during the height of apartheid oppression.
Sparks, who died last month aged 83, was in person a modest, thoughtful figure. But such was his towering and tenacious role in the fight against the atrocities of white rule that Nelson Mandela, returning to his Soweto home after leaving prison, spotted Sparks in the crowd outside the house and immediately called for him to come inside.
Allister is best remembered for his editorship of the Rand Daily Mail from the late 1960s to 1981, when he resigned after the paper's owners - the giant Anglo American corporation - caved in to government pressure and ordered him to tone down his anti-apartheid rhetoric.
As Trevor says, we admired the courage of the Rand Daily Mail journalists, who in the 1970s revealed the truth of the death in custody of Steve Biko and whose reporting uncovered the slush fund scandal which led to the downfall of prime minister "Jackboot" John Vorster - astonishing pieces of journalism which, given the iron fist of the Pretoria government, to me were greater - certainly braver - than Watergate.
I was fortunate to become friends with some of those reporters, mainly through after-work drinks in the RDM watering hole, a grotty hotel called The Federal with a public bar low on hygiene and eternally wreathed in smoke. Some of them were forced to flee South Africa before BOSS came for them, including one couple who helped look after Nelson and Winnie Mandela's two children when she was incarcerated or in internal exile. I got on especially well with the paper's financial and business editor, a quirky Englishman called Howard Preece, and I was sad to learn of his death just one week before that of Allister. Preece, who had been president of the Oxford Union (launchpad for numerous UK prime ministers), never revealed how he had ended up in Johannesburg, although a severe drink problem somewhat gave the game away. But sober, and teetotal from the mid-70s, Howard was a brilliant financial journalist by any standard and it was the great strength of the paper's business and economic reporting that kept it financially alive in very troubled times.
Trevor mentioned how Allister had worked for Reuters, in (I think) the early 1960s. There were quite a few others, as Reuters links with South Africa dated back to 1895 and it effectively ran the domestic news service there from 1905 to 1938.
When I was a trainee doing a stint on the SAf desk in 1966, I was told a cautionary tale of one such young South African journalist who had been fired not long before. News to South Africa in those days was sent by radio transmission. In between the regular transmissions, a test message for tuning purposes was sent on a loop of ticker tape. On one Christmas Eve, the said gentleman and the operator were the only two on duty, and went for a break. When they returned, they took off the test loop but were too pissed to write or punch any further copy. Putting the loop of tape back on, they returned to the pub and didn't bother to return. Unfortunately, in their drunken state they had put the loop on backwards, so a constant stream of garbage was sent out until well into the next day. Even more unfortunately, the final item on the last transmission had been an urgent on an air crash, which was still open with More at the bottom.
Ken Owen, the journalist in question, returned to South Africa and promptly enrolled in AA. When I got to know him in the 1990s he was editor of the (South Africa) Sunday Times and had turned what had been a white-read sensationalist rag into a respected journal with a mainly black readership. Ken, who died aged 80 in March 2015, acknowledged that his time at Reuters had coincided with his drinking and brawling days, a tradition kept alive by other colonial boys in the late 1960s such as John McLennan, Ron Golden (both of whom reported from Vietnam for Reuters before returning to southern Africa), and Barry Riddell. ■