Read of the Week

The Sword And The Pen

Allister Sparks

Jonathan Ball

Review: Brian Joss

The Sword and the Pen about the life and times of veteran journalist Allister Sparks who recently celebrated his 84th birthday reads like a top-drawer thriller. Often controversial, yet never dull, Sparks has had a frontline view of history and was often in the thick of it, literally and figuratively, whether he was working for the Daily Representative in Cathcart, the Rand Daily Mail or freelancing for some of the world’s greatest publications.

Sparks was editor of the great, crusading anti-apartheid paper, the Rand Daily Mail from 1977 to 1981, but started working there in 1967 under the prescient Laurence Gandar, who knew then that Hendrik Verwoerd’s apartheid dream was doomed to failure.

Sparks begins his memoirs about growing up as an only child on the family farm, Hotfire, in the Eastern Cape, and of his gradual awakening to the realities of life in South Africa, especially the exploitation of the Xhosas.

It was by accident, a happy accident, that Sparks became a journalist. His first job was as a reporter on the Daily Representative in Cathcart, Queenstown, “a remarkable publication”, that carried eight pages of international, national and local news. His dream was always to work on Fleet Street, which was not as easy as it sounds. So Sparks packed his bags and sailed for England where he lived for two years, with high hopes of working on “The Street”. Instead he worked as a labourer in a screw factory where he had to pour metal shavings into a hot furnace so they could be remoulded into rods, and as a waiter, and learnt how soul-destroying menial jobs could be. But a few years later he did work for Reuters in London.

Sub-titled “Six Decades On The Political Frontier”, Sparks for the first time discloses more facts behind the escape of anti-apartheid activists Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe, and what really happened in Botswana and it makes enthralling reading.

The names on the pages read like a Roll of Honour: Beyers Naude; Steve Biko; Helen Zille, the journalist who uncovered the truth about the Black Consciousness leader’s death; Benjamin Progrund, who set the cat among the pigeons with his ground-breaking stories in the Rand Daily Mail of prison conditions in South Africa under the apartheid regime.

Others include Chris Day and Mervyn Rees who, with the help of the Deep Throat, Myrtle (to this day her identity is a closely guarded secret), brought down a government with their Infogate scoop and exposed the shenanigans of the infamous Eschel Rhoodie and Connie Mulder. Sparks recounts the murder of Dr Robert Smit and his wife Jeanne-Cora at their Springs home, a mystery which still lingers today – and which involved high-ranking government officials including former finance minister, Nico Diederichs and secret Swiss bank accounts (Sparks also talks about an unpublished novel by Rhoodie who gave the manuscript to Chris Day for his opinion. I read that dog-eared, typewritten manuscript, which was kept in a cardboard apple box, and which years ago I was asked to edit. But as Sparks says, it was never published. Thinly disguised as fiction, it tells, among other things, who was behind the murder of Smit and his wife, and what the government of the day was up to).

Sparks voices his suspicion about the editor of the Sunday Times, the late Tertius Myburgh, being a spy for the apartheid government. And he explains what led to the demise of the Rand Daily Mail. Sparks writes about his friendship with Nelson Mandela and the day he took the imperious Winnie to visit him on Robben Island.

The Sword And The Pen is not only about Sparks’s career. There are some intensely emotional moments when he writes about the deaths of his mother, Berniece, and his two wives: Mary Rowe and activist Sue Matthey, who died of an aneurysm and cancer respectively. In the last chapter, Sparks examines the release of Mandela, the rise and fall of Thabo Mbeki and the Zuma scandals but concludes there are grounds for optimism and hope. The Sword And The Pen is a significant and valuable record of the Struggle and should be required reading for anyone interested in our history.