South Africa’s Golden Age of Journalism

Reflecting on the September 19th death of 83-year-old Allister Sparks, political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi wrote that fearless journalists like Sparks contributed to the defeat of apartheid. “Theirs,” said the struggle veteran, “was a golden age of journalism which coincided with one of the darkest periods in our history.”

For me, a young reporter in Johannesburg from 1974 to 1977, I think Matshiqi has it right. It took extraordinary courage for editors like Sparks, Larry Gandar and Ray Louw before him, Percy Qoboza, Donald Woods, George Palmer and others to defend their reporters and publish authoritative, accurate news. These editors knew the risks of confronting a repressive vindictive government and yet they persevered.

Much posthumous praise has justifiably been accorded Sparks whose final column was written not long before his death.  His was a remarkable 60-year career as a reporter and editor, from the advent of apartheid to the arrival of democracy and 20 years beyond.

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Allister Sparks

 I first met Sparks at the time of the Soweto uprising when I regularly visited the SAAN building to read the wires and get first hand reports from reporters who had just returned from Soweto and other townships. At that time Sparks was the editor of the Sunday Express, the sister publication of the Rand Daily Mail, which Sparks edited from 1977 to 1981.

It was the Mail’s team of black reporters that provided the bulk of the paper’s coverage of Soweto and the police response. With roadblocks keeping whites out of black areas, without the eyewitness reports of Mail and other reporters who lived in Soweto the full horror of the events might never have been known. Those reporters indeed warrant the nation’s admiration. They personify Mashiqi’s golden age of journalism.

Not surprisingly these correspondents bore the full brunt of official retaliation. In the days following Soweto 14 black reporters, four of them from the Mail, were arrested and held without charge. One was confined in solitary confinement for 365 days.

Among the detained were the Mail’s star photographer Peter Magubane, Gabu Tugwana, Willie Nkosi and Nat Serache. Magubane’s dramatic images were seen worldwide, photos that made him South Africa’s most acclaimed photographer. Serache had been a staple on the BBC’s Focus on Africa program, speaking by phone most evenings about developments in black areas. In exile Serache was an ANC operative and later under President Nelson Mandela a top diplomat in Botswana.

Stanley Uys was another authoritative South African voice on the BBC, which was a principal source of news about what was going on. The SABC, of course, could not be relied upon as its reporting was thin and followed the government line. Television wasn’t a factor as it had only recently arrived and the SABC was the only channel.

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Steve Biko

In his 2016 autobiography, The Sword and the Pen, Sparks wrote that the September 12, 1977 death in police custody of black activist Stephan Biko was his first big challenge as an editor. Tipped off by a pathologist that the black consciousness leader had died not from a hunger strike as officially stated but from blows to the body, Mail reporter Helen Zille and others went to work and revealed the horrific story of how Biko had died. More unrest and detentions followed. Black newspapers including Qoboza’s World were shut down.

Biko had been banned shortly after Soweto. In East London his friend and Daily Dispatch editor Donald Woods was incensed. His editorials hammered away at the evils of apartheid, leading to Woods himself being banned. He used his time under house arrest to write Biko’s biography, a manuscript he took with him when disguised as an Anglican priest he escaped into Lesotho in October 1978. The book, Biko, was a best seller and led to David Attenborough adapting it into the prize-winning film Cry Freedom.  During 12 years of exile Woods gave 400 speeches and interviews (including to this reporter) educating people to the horrors of apartheid.

In 1978 Rand Daily Mail reporters working under Sparks uncovered the secret Department of Information campaign in which public money was used to establish the pro-government Citizen newspaper. The ensuing scandal led to John Vorster’s resignation as prime minister in September that same year.

Sparks of course was fired from the Mail in 1981 as its owners wanted to soften its anti-government line and attract more white readers. It was a failed strategy and the Rand Daily Mail was closed in 1985. Thus began the period that RDM On-Line editor Ray Hartley calls apartheid’s cold winter.

But winter turned to spring when Mandela was set free and apartheid ended. That SA’s constitution enshrines media freedom is a tribute to brave reporters and courageous editors like Sparks, Woods and Qoboza who verified that freely reported news and information is powerful.  They proved that the pen is mightier than the sword. #

Washington commentator Barry D. Wood was a writer at the Financial Mail from 1974 to 1976 and Johannesburg correspondent for NBC News in 1976 and 1977. He reported from inside Soweto on the first day of the June 16th uprising.

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