Allister Sparks was born to Harold Sparks and Bernice Stephen on 10 March 1933 in Cathcart, Eastern Cape. This made him a fifth generation settler, with his forbearers having arrived as part of the famous 1820 contingent. Despite his white parents, his first language was isiXhosa as he was principally raised amongst Xhosa people. Sparks studied at Queen’s College in Queenstown and matriculated in 1950. The following year he began his journalism career by working at The Queenstown Daily Representative, the local town’s weekly newspaper. He left to pursue his tertiary education at Harvard University where he was awarded a Nieman Fellowship.

Sparks subsequently joined The Rand Daily Mail as its correspondent and columnist before becoming the assistant director in 1967. In 1974 he became the editor of The Sunday Express before returning to The Rand Daily Mail as the editor in 1977. The Rand Daily Mail was the major voice of the liberal opposition to the Apartheid government and Sparks made a name for himself when he revealed that the committed Apartheid opponent, Steve Bantu Biko, had been beaten to death by the police in 1977. He later exposed how the government was using  funds to establish the conservative Citizen newspaper and to buy stakes in other news publications in order to counteract the influence of The Rand Daily Mail. This revelation, by Sparks, led to the resignation of Prime Minister John Vorster in 1979. However, despite his influence, Sparks was fired by The Rand Daily Mail in 1981 because the newspaper was facing financial strife and its major stakeholders took the decision to move away from targeting a black readership in order to focus more on white readers instead. The newspaper went out of business four years later.

Cover of Sparks’ memoir, ‘The Sword and the Pen’ Image source

Sparks labelled himself as the “war correspondent” for The Washington Post, The Observer and the NRC Handelsblad from 1981-1922, covering the violence that erupted between the government and leading anti-apartheid group, the United Democratic Front. A highlight of his work was befriending Mr Nelson Mandela and receiving an extensive interview on the historic negotiations that ended white minority rule. After Mandela was elected as the democratic president of the country, Sparks served under him as the television and current affairs editor of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). In his later life, he launched SABC-Africa, a satellite broadcaster to the entire African continent.

In his lifetime, Sparks won awards such as the International Editor of the Year (1979) and the David Blundy Award for Foreign Reporting (1985). Additionally, he published books such as ‘The Mind of South Africa’ (19991), ‘Tomorrow is Another Country’ (1996), ‘Miracle and First Drafts’ (2009), and The Sword and the Pen (2016). Sparks passed away on 19 September 2016 in Johannesburg from illness and left a legacy as a trailblazing journalist, veteran writer and respected political commentator.


Allister Sparks, South African Journalist Who Challenged Apartheid, Dies at 83. Available Online: Accessed on: 9 February 2018"Allister Sparks. Available Online: Accessed on 10 February 2018.|Veteran Journalist Allister Sparks Dies. Available Online: Accessed on: 9 February 2018.

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