Allister Sparks talks papers and politicians

Long time journalist and public commentator Allister Sparks (82) found himself at the centre of a social media storm when he declared Apartheid architect Hendrick Verwoerd was a ‘smart politician’. Wits Vuvuzela spoke to Sparks at the Menell Media Exchange conference in Sandton about the state of journalism in South Africa and the shifts in the political landscape. 

VETERAN JOURNALIST: Allister Sparks spoke to Wits Vuvuzela about dying newspapers, the 'gimmicks' of EFF, and Baleka Mbete. Photo: Dinesh Balliah

VETERAN JOURNALIST: Allister Sparks remains vocal about dying newspapers, the ‘gimmicks’ of the EFF, and the ‘unbalanced’ Baleka Mbete. Photo: Dinesh Balliah

What stood out for you at this year’s conference and is there anything you expect to hear?

I was particularly taken by yesterday’s session by Catherine Kennedy (of the South African History Archive). I didn’t go to the branding, maybe I missed something there, I guess I feel it’s a bit too late for me to brand myself at my age (laughs). For me Catherine was the highlight. Particularly John Perlman and Songezo Zibi, I thought there were wise thoughts that came out of them.

On parliament in South Africa today …

Parliament has been a very refined and remote place, now it’s in the public eye and I think that’s good. [However] it will have to take a grip on itself, and it needs a better speaker than we have at the moment, because it can easily become a laughing stock, it can really damage its reputation.

On the EFF and their disruption in Parliament, and Baleka Mbete …

I do think the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters), has brought something, but it’s got to be very carefully monitored by a much better speaker than we’ve got. I think Max Sisulu would have managed it, Max was a very good speaker and Frene Ginwala likewise, not a partisan speaker who’s the chairman of a party, and her lack of balance shows so glaringly, nobody takes her seriously.

I think the red garments [of the EFF] was a gimmick, I guess once you’ve got them it’s very hard to get rid of them, I don’t  think it has any impact anymore, it had an impact in the beginning. The gimmicks need to be limited, but they can only be limited by the speaker, and that’s got to be by persuasion, not by bringing in the police. She (Mbete) needs to call in the whips and say ‘How do we deal with this?’

I think a lot of it [parliament] is archaic language and it’s a bit absurd; it’s meant to preserve a tradition, but at the same time its got to give way to the modern world and the modern South Africa where not everybody shares the British tradition. There has to be some kind of control in the transformation of parliament and only a really wise, strong, and influential speaker can do that.

On Business Day editor Songezo Zibi …

I think he’s a very thoughtful young man and I think he has some very important insights … he’s a real asset to the media. He’s a young man and he’s a very important addition to our galaxies of editors, he’s thoughtful and cares about the media. John Perlman has been around for a long time, but this is a newcomer really [Zibi] out of a different profession, and he has a great career ahead of him.

On newspapers in the new digital age …

I think two kinds of newspapers papers are going to survive in the new digital age: One is the local paper, the small town paper and the other is the serious paper. I think the popular press is going to die, and we have an awful lot of popular press here and its days are numbered.

There’s got to be one black newspaper that’s going to emerge as a serious one, [maybe] it is the Sowetan, City Press is getting there but it’s only a Sunday paper.

Veteran journalist compared to Dlamini over Verwoerd comments

Veteran journalist Allister Sparks yesterday declared apartheid architect and former South African prime minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, as one of the many “smart” politicians he has met in the course of his career. His comments were compared to those made by former Wits SRC president, Mcebo Dlamini’s remarks on his love for Hitler. 

Veteran journalist Allister Sparks has been compared to Mcebo Dlamini after he listed Hendrik Verwoerd as one of the many smart politicians he has encountered at the Democratic Alliance (DA) Federal in Port Elizabeth congress yesterday.

“I’ve encountered some really smart politicians, like the likes of Harry Lawrence, Bernard Friedman, Margaret Ballinger, Helen Zille, Helen Suzman, Zach de Beer, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, Marais Steyn, Japie Basson and yes, Hendrik Verwoerd,” Sparks said.

The comments, which failed to list a single Black politician, was made in a tribute speech for outgoing DA leader Helen Zille. They were almost immediately condemned by many on Twitter, and subsequently compared to the Facebook post of Dlamini.

Verwoerd is considered to be the ‘architect’ of Apartheid, the system of racial segregation and oppression.

Political analyst and academic Eusebius McKaiser referred to both Sparks’ and Dlamini’s comments as “morally indefensible”

According to Professor Anton Harber, the head of Wits Journalism and the chairperson of the Freedom of Expression Institute, Sparks speaking at a political event is inappropriate for an independent journalist.

“His list of clever polticians showed a deep prejudice,” Harber added.

Harber also listed Sparks’ failure to retract his comments and apologise as one of his errors.

Like Dlamini, he stood by his comments saying that while Verwoerd’s policies were atrocious, the former prime minister built the National Party in an extraordinarily effective way.

“What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to say he was dumb or stupid? He wasn’t stupid,” Sparks is reported to have said.

Meanwhile McKaiser has challenged Sparks to a public debate about his comments.