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South Africa was never quite a totalitarian society, but it was authoritarian, and it had a very tou

Legendary South African Journalist Allister Sparks on Wiretapping and Torture, Under Apartheid and Bush
Thursday, February 23rd, 2006
We spend the hour with legendary South African editor and reporter Allister Sparks. Sparks gained fame as editor of South Africa's Rand Daily Mail in the late 1970s where he helped bring down a South African Prime Minister in a government propaganda scandal. He also helped expose the death of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko at the hands of South Africa's security forces. In 1995, South African president Nelson Mandela appointed Sparks to the Board of the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

Sparks discusses wiretapping and torture, under apartheid last century and under the Bush administration today. He also discusses indicted Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and his ties to the apartheid regime. [includes rush transcript - partial]

Today we spend the hour with legendary South African editor and reporter, Allister Sparks on wiretapping and torture. He knew it well in apartheid South Africa. He talks about what it means for the U.S. today. And what does Jack Abramoff have to do with South Africa? In the 1980s, he was head of the pro-apartheid International Freedom Foundation in Washington. His counterpart in South Africa: Craig Williamson. Sparks sat on the Truth and Reconciliation hearings next to the man who lost his wife and daughter to a letter bomb that Williamson was involved in sending.
Allister Sparks gained fame as editor of South Africa's Rand Daily Mail in the late 1970s where he helped bring down a South African Prime Minister in a government propaganda scandal. He also helped expose the death of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko at the hands of South Africa's security forces. In 1995, South African president Nelson Mandela appointed Sparks to the Board of the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

Sparks also founded the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism which has trained over 13,000 journalists from the African continent. He has written three books on South Africa, "The Mind of South Africa," "Tomorrow is Another Country," and "Beyond the Miracle."

I had a chance to sit down with Allister Sparks earlier this month in Doha, Qatar for an extended interview.

AMY GOODMAN: I had a chance to sit down with Allister Sparks earlier this month in Doha, Qatar, for an extended interview. Allister Sparks began by talking about the current state of the media.

ALLISTER SPARKS: You know, I think the media has always had a lot of problems, but after a long career as a journalist, there's one that I think has not received as much attention as it should. And that, it's a two-edged factor, really. On the one hand, you have what Noam Chomsky has called the phenomenon of the elite consensus, and that is simply the notion that journalists, especially senior journalists and beat journalists who are covering particular issues or subjects, White House correspondents, for example, become part of the elite. They live with them. They become friends. They start thinking the same way. And the reporters, the journalists become dependant on their sources, the sources in turn dependant on them; it's a symbiotic relationship. But it's rather like journalists embedded in the military. They become part of the group. They socialize together. Often, their children go to the same schools even. And they start thinking that way.

Above all, journalists of that sort need their sources. They need to maintain access to their sources, so the last thing they want to do is give offense to the source, by suggesting that the source is not telling the truth. Now, you couple that with the fact that increasing -- you get increasing sophistication with the spin-doctoring, that every government and every government department now uses with increasing skill to put a particular spin on an event, particularly an embarrassing event. And more and more, it seems to me, the journalists who are so embedded with these sources -- socially, culturally, professionally, in every way -- they don't question that. They don't doubt that. They play along with it. They don't want to give offense. They want to maintain the access.

And I think that combination of the increasing skill of the spin doctoring and the dependence of the journalists on maintaining the source and becoming a friend of the source and part of that elite consensus, I think that is very much part of what has happened, particularly in the United States, where the spin doctoring skills are developed to a particularly high level. And journalists become reluctant to really go hard at it and crack that open and try and get to the truth, saying, “Hey, look, I don't believe this guy. He's putting a gloss on it. He's max-factorizing the facts, and I’m going to cut through that, and I’m going to give him a hard time.” There's not enough of that.

And I think this is one of the reasons -- of course, it's all magnified in times of war. When you have the additional pressures of patriotism, and the newspaper itself or the television network becomes fearful of being accused of being unpatriotic, of siding with the terrorists. These are knee-jerk responses. And it can be costly. I mean, people lost their jobs. I was in the United States at the time of 9/11, and, you know, some shows -- people running shows that offered criticisms were wiped out. They were removed, taken off the air.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you buck the system, from your own experience in South Africa and now?

ALLISTER SPARKS: Well, it's such an insidious, creeping disease, that you have, first of all, to become aware of its existence. And the individual journalist must become aware of the extent to which they're infected by it, and then, you know, the only way to do that is to determinedly revert to your professional instincts and to be questioning and to, you know, to be bold enough to put up with the consequences. I think you've got to maintain that challenging spirit. Otherwise, you're finished.

AMY GOODMAN: In South Africa, you were the editor of the Rand Daily Mail. You were an opposition newspaper editor. What did that mean then?

ALLISTER SPARKS: Well, I was on the newspaper for 23 years. I was also its political correspondent. So a large part of my life was spent in this combative situation. It was very difficult to live with. I mean, I took a battering, emotional battering. A stressful life. It took a toll on my family, on my family life. Not easy to do. I mean, there are easier ways to earn a living. But once you're in it, you know, you have to keep at it. What can I say about, you know, how was it?

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about --

ALLISTER SPARKS: It's not an easy way of life.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about the wiretapping. That's a topic that's very hot in the United States right now, domestic surveillance.

ALLISTER SPARKS: Well, you know, I think wiretapping was pervasive in South Africa. South Africa was never quite a totalitarian society, but it was authoritarian, and it had a very tough police state dimension to it. And they all used wiretapping. I mean, what was worse than wiretapping, I think, was the planting of spies in your midst, and you suddenly find that you've got people on your own staff who are actually members of the security services, who are spying on you, and you don't know that until they turn up in court and some other members of your staff are in the dock, being prosecuted under these so-called security laws.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you give us an example of that happening? These guys posed as reporters?

ALLISTER SPARKS: Yes, yes, until they turned up giving evidence for the state and were revealed to be Major So-and-so, you know, and they had been in the pay of the security cops, sort of South Africa's version of the Gestapo. And, you know, there they were. And it was, you know -- it led to this pervasive sense of discomfort with your own staff. Some people would do things or behave in a way that made you suspicious, but what do you do about that? How do you confront this? How do you deal with it? Do you go to your reporter and say, “Hey, look, are you a spy?” I did that on one occasion. And, of course, nobody is going to say, “Yes, of course, I am.”

On this particular occasion, I grilled the fellow quite intensively, and he got very emotional and swore on his mother's grave that he wasn't. Subsequently, it turned out he was, and he, as he was about to flee the country to go and write a book exposing everything, he came and spent an entire night weeping in my home, before he went off to the airport. I arrived back from my office, and my wife met me at the door and whispered when she met me outside -- I got in late -- and she whispered, she said, you know, “Gordon Winter is here.” And I said, “What on earth is he doing here?” And she said, “Well, he's unplugged all the telephones in the house, and he's put pillows over them, and he wants to see you.”

And we talked 'til dawn. He said, “I can't leave here and, you know, before dawn I've got to get to the airport. I have an old Volkswagen Beetle, and I’m just going to dump it at the airport, because they'll kill me if they know that I’m going abroad and I’m going to write a book exposing what the BOSS service, the Bureau of State Security, if I’m going to blow the whistle on them. And this was a man who had worked for me for three years. He then left the staff, gone to work for another newspaper, but had suddenly undergone some fit of remorse and did that.

But, you know, I always accepted that my own telephone was bugged. One got used to living that way. I frequently -- I was handling a particularly large scandal, which we worked on for two years on the paper. It ultimately brought down the government of John Vorster. It brought an end to his prime ministership. But in the course of this, we were pursuing some very senior government figures, who were profoundly corrupt, and they were buying influence. They were trying -- they even tried -- well, they did, in fact, buy the Sacramento Bee -- no, it wasn't the Bee, it was the other newspaper. I can't remember its name. They tried to buy the Washington news -- the Washington Star, that’s right. They tried to buy papers in Britain. And, you know, it was a huge, huge spider's web of intrigue that was --

AMY GOODMAN: This was Muldergate?

ALLISTER SPARKS: This was the Muldergate story, which my newspaper exposed, broke open after two years of investigation. Well, we held meetings. We would, at random, book rooms to go and have our news conferences in various hotels, because we all assumed that the office was bugged. And when this carried on, working on that assumption, I then discovered that my own secretary was a spy. So, even though we were booking these rooms, she was doing the bookings. It didn't help that much. And eventually, I went to engage with one of the people we were pursuing, and we had already exposed him, and he was in hiding. And he was also very angry, because he said that the President, the whole government, knew what he was doing, and they were now hanging him out to dry. So he became our final informant.

And I had to sit for two days in the Baur au Lac Hotel in Zurich, waiting for him to show up. He had fled to Latin America. And then he turned up in France. And he wouldn’t -- I sat there for two days, and he said he would -- I got this message to come and meet him. But as I boarded the plane, I realized that somebody came barging in last, very late into the aircraft and flopped down beside me. And we then landed in Zurich, and I saw him following me. And I leapt in a taxi, and it was almost like one of those old-fashioned movies. I said to the taxi driver, you know, "Lose that chap." And he followed me quite some distance. And it became this very sort of sleazy underworld, but one lived with it and coped with it.

I mean, I think this is still such a shock in the United States, that you, you know, I think you feel that it's all so new to you, the realization of it, but I guess we got used to it. I mean, it's a very unpleasant thing. You feel unclean all the time. And that is why I think, you know, the end of apartheid in South Africa was such a liberating thing. One felt the country -- quite apart from racism, one felt it was being cleansed in so many other ways, too. And, you know, this is why I find it deeply disturbing to see what is happening in the United States today, and everything from detentions without trial to wiretapping to the torture of prisoners, which seems to be blatantly done and obviously condoned from very high quarters. So many of the odious things that I lived with for so long in my country, that poisoned our society, I now see them occurring in the United States, which I've always admired, and it's tarnished my admiration most seriously. It's a country I really have no great wish to visit again.

AMY GOODMAN: Legendary South African editor, Allister Sparks.


AMY GOODMAN: We return to our discussion with anti-apartheid journalist and editor, Allister Sparks. He spoke about reporting in South Africa under apartheid and being wiretapped for years by the government. I asked him if he was ever arrested.

ALLISTER SPARKS: I was arrested on one occasion. I was also charged -- we had 120 laws that we had to navigate, and it made editing a newspaper extremely stressful. Even being a line reporter was extremely stressful. We all had to be lawyers. We had to know what we were doing, because if you were going to continue exposing injustice, you had to try to avoid the laws, you know, the censorship laws. We never had censors in our offices. We just had punitive laws. And if you fell foul of them you could be prosecuted, and your paper could be in serious difficulty, so we had to know the law and we had to find ways to expose the injustices without being prosecuted.

I went through the court six times as an editor. I won all the cases. We had good lawyers. I mean, it's a very ambivalent society, because we had quite good judges, most of the time. When you went to court, you didn't worry so much about the strength of your case; you worried about who the judge was. If you knew the judge was a good one, you had a chance. Otherwise, you would have gone on, you just sort of waited for the appeal and hoped you got a better one. My wife got arrested -- oh, that was a complicated case, in which, after, I was eventually fired.

You know, the worst part of running a newspaper like the Rand Daily Mail was the increasing animosity of my own proprietors. And not only me, I mean, my two predecessors were fired, too. The death rate of editors on that newspaper was quite high. They were dismissed because the proprietors came under pressure. They were in the business community. They didn't like a newspaper that caused so much trouble. And, you know, the bulk of the white community didn't like what we were doing. Many people stopped reading us. The black circulation increased exponentially. But then, they had no money, so they were of little interest to the advertisers. So one came under this kind of pressure. On the one hand, you had this heavy-handed government trying to stop you doing what you knew was your journalistic job. And then, on the other hand, you had this lack of support and the sense of being undermined by your own proprietors. Not an easy life.

AMY GOODMAN: So you were arrested for what case?

ALLISTER SPARKS: Oh, that was a case -- I was eventually fired as editor, and I went back to become a reporter again, which was a wonderful move. I mean, it's always the best job in journalism, anyway. And I became a foreign correspondent out of my own country. I faced this rather awkward choice of either abandoning my profession or leaving my country, and I didn't want to do either. So, Ben Bradley was really the first to -- oh, the Observer Donald Trelford on the Observer, these were old friends that I had met over many years.

AMY GOODMAN: Where is the Observer based?

ALLISTER SPARKS: In London. It’s always been one of the major liberal Sunday papers in Britain. Donald Trelford was the editor then, and he got on a phone quickly and said, you know, “We hear what's happened to you. Would you like to work for us?” And I said, “Well, let's talk about it.” I took a brief holiday abroad, and Ben Bradley got hold of me, so I ended up working for both of them.

Well, once that had happened, I took another close look at the laws, and I was aware that one couldn't be prosecuted for crimes committed outside the country, so I decided to ignore the censorship laws. And that went along okay for a time. But then I quoted a sassy remark by Winnie Mandela on one occasion. I did a story to accompany her to see Nelson in prison. And I flew with her from the place where she was under a banning order, just to report on how difficult it was for her to see her husband. So I went along with her. She could be in the company of one person at a time.

And then, it was the first time she had visited him after he had been moved off of the island prison onto the mainland. And she said to me in this sort of devil-may-care way that she had, she said, “You know, I've never seen Cape Town”. So there she was in my car. And in the past she had just gone straight to the ferry and was taken to the island. She said, “I've never seen Cape Town,” which is a very beautiful city. So I said, “Okay, I'll drive you to the prison, and I'll arrange to get lost.” And so, we did a bit of a tour.

We were being followed by a police car, incidentally, just very close behind, very conspicuous. And we rode past the residence of then-President PW Botha, and I pointed this out to her. So she said, “Oh, I wish I could go in and knock on the door and ask Elise if I could measure the curtains,” you see, which is a gorgeous sassy remark and an irresistible quote in my story. And I quoted that, and, of course, she was under a banning order, and one couldn't publish anything said by a person under a banning order or anybody banned.

AMY GOODMAN: You could publish a story about her visiting her husband, but you couldn't actually quote her, use her words.

ALLISTER SPARKS: I couldn’t quote any word she said. But I was writing for foreign newspapers. So I was saying, “To hell with that. I'm going to quote her.” And I did. And who would miss a quote like that? So I wrote it. And they -- I came back from an early morning jog one morning to find a whole army of security police at my home. There were about 12 of them, and they wanted to see me. And they wanted me to hand over my original copy, and I knew why.

In terms of our law, I couldn't have been prosecuted for what appeared in the Washington Post or the Observer, so they were looking for my original copy. This was in pre-computer days of journalism, understand. And they knew, and I knew that there was a test case showing this, so I was very much on my guard. They were looking for my original copy, which they knew would have been sent -- and they wanted the telexed version, because that would have meant that I had published it to the telex operator, who was within South Africa, and therefore, committed a crime. I knew there was a test case to that effect and that I was vulnerable there.

Anyway, I refused to cooperate. But then I took fright. I suddenly remembered that I had taken a picture of Winnie -- at her insistence, I might say -- had taken a picture of her standing proudly and defiantly in a spot where she shouldn't have been. It was one of the key points; it was a military installation with the name on a big road sign, you see. And she just said, I want you to take this picture. So I had taken it. And afterwards, I thought, well, that's a bit dumb. There's no way I can ever use this or publish it, because it incriminates her, shows she was where she shouldn't have been, and that's going to blow her chances to visit Nelson. So I just shoved the negatives in my disk.

And in the middle of all this, while I was striking a very defiant pose with all these security cops were swarming through my house at about 6:00 in the morning, my wife -- you know, I had been out for this jog. So I said, “I've got to go and have a shower now.” And they were starting to dismantle the home and go through everything from the laundry basket and my wife's underwear, everything, just searching for this darn telex copy.

And I managed to get into the bathroom with my wife and reminded her that this picture was in my office in town. And I knew there was a colleague who went to work early. And I said, “Look, when you take young Julian to school, can you just slip by to somebody else's home and phone Bernard and tell him to, you know, be very careful how you phrase it. But tell him to go look in my desk” -- I mentioned where it was – “find the negatives and burn them, flush them down the toilet. Do anything, but get rid of that.” It was all I was worried about, and I was prepared to face the other stuff, but the implications for her were too serious. Well, she did that.

I later went into my office, and it was quite hilarious. There were all -- I drove into the city. They followed me. And there were swarms more people there. They were all over my office, and they were demanding this thing, and I was refusing to cooperate. And I remember it was led by a man called Lieutenant Pitu. And while -- they were very angry with me, because I wouldn't help. I said, “This is an act of intimidation. I know what you're looking for. You go find it, I'm not helping you. I'm not going to assist in my own intimidation.”

And by this time, word had got out to other journalists, including foreign correspondents abroad, and I started getting a torrent of phone calls coming through. And I would take these calls while these people were searching, and I did it like a sports commentator over the telephone. And I said -- they said, “We believe you're being raided.” And I said, “Yes, yes, in my office at the moment is Lieutenant Pitu. And I see him moving over to my filing cabinet. I see him looking at the drawer -- it's all in alphabetical order. He's looking at the M’s. I suppose he's looking for Mandela. Now he's moving to the other side. And, oh, now he's looking for” -- and he was getting more and more furious, so eventually they went and shut down the switchboard, which cut off all the other correspondents. And, you know, this ridiculous thing was going on, but the next -- after a while another almost-army of security cops came and then swept into Bernard's office and took him out handcuffed. My wife --

AMY GOODMAN: Whose office?

ALLISTER SPARKS: The man I had asked my wife to call, you see. And I then realized that not only my home was bugged, you know, to the eaves, but they must have had electronic devices over the whole neighborhood, and they were bugging all phones. And they had picked up this call that she had made from a neighbor's house to Bernard. So they knew he was there. So they dragged him off in handcuffs and took him into custody. And then I phoned my wife, who at that moment was presiding over a birthday party for 14 four-year-olds. And I told her that she could expect to be arrested any moment, which indeed did happen. And, you know, the legal case dragged on for about two years. Ben Bradley, in particular --

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to the party? The four-year-olds partied on their own?

ALLISTER SPARKS: There were all sorts of hilarious aspects. The police started calling, and she was pretending to be -- the big bad wolf was on the phone and all this sort of ridiculous stuff. But, you know, it was serious stuff. There were prison sentences looming at the end of that. It was a blatant act of political intimidation, because you cannot be -- you know, in terms of our law, you could not be prosecuted for something that had been published outside. And they were just going for this technicality that I had published it to one person, who was the transmitter of the message.

AMY GOODMAN: Did they find it?

ALLISTER SPARKS: They did, yes. And they brought a charge against me, and they brought charges against Bernard for defeating the ends of justice, and my wife for defeating the end of justice. They were all marched off to prison and then released on bail. By this time, the Washington Post had got very, very agitated. And Bo Jones, who was then the counselor -- he's now the publisher -- flew out about three times, I think, to wrap the flag around me, as he put it. And the whole thing dragged on for about two years. But eventually they brought so much pressure through diplomatic quarters that the case was dropped. But it took two years for that to happen.

I mean, these were peripheral experiences. An awful lot of journalists, especially black journalists went through really tough times. I mean, this story, as I can tell, are mostly just hilarious. It was a way of life for all of us. But a photographer on my staff, Peter Magubane, who’s a wonderful photographer, still holds the world record for solitary confinement. He was confined for more than a year in absolute solitude. He emerged still strong and intact, I don't know how. Some were killed. You know, it was a very -- it was a very tough time.

But I do believe that the fact that some of our important newspapers maintained the determination, in spite of everything that was thrown at them, to continue preventing a solidifying of white opinion, continued to keep the facts exposed and revealed about the injustices that were taking place. I think that without that, the country would not have changed as it did.

AMY GOODMAN: Allister Sparks, the legendary anti-apartheid South African editor.

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