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Allister Sparks, South African Journalist Who Challenged Apartheid, Dies

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Allister Sparks, who died this week at the age of 83, was more than just a South African newspaperman. Sparks epitomized the journalist who stood for press freedom and its robust exercise under the most adverse circumstances.

During the days of apartheid, Sparks wrote for and edited the Rand Daily Mail. He was also an author and commentator on the politics and history of his native South Africa. For a 1994 NPR report, he spoke of the link between pro-apartheid Afrikaners and Nazism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ALLISTER SPARKS: Given their own Teutonic background, they felt a language affinity. They felt an emotional affinity. And many of them became ardent admirers of Nazism. And the idea and the ideology of apartheid was actually blueprinted at that time.

SIEGEL: Allister Sparks was famous for his paper's breaking of the so-called Muldergate scandal, revelations of South Africa's covert spending to influence and soften U.S. media coverage of apartheid.

Another and younger South African reporter who covered that story and went on to become NPR's reporter in South Africa was John Matisonn, who joins us via Skype from outside Cape Town.

John, welcome back to the program.

JOHN MATISONN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: You knew Allister Sparks for many years. You knew him well. How would you assess his importance to the history of your country?

MATISONN: Well, I think there were several phases to it. His primary period in South Africa was as editor of the Rand Daily Mail, which really was a strong and campaigning anti-apartheid newspaper, and the biggest morning paper in the country. And he presided over the coverage of the South African Watergate - Muldergate. There were consistent anti-apartheid investigations that were done during that time.

Then there was a second phase after he was fired for doing perhaps too well at what he was doing. He was hired by Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post. That came at a pivotal time in the '80s, when the rest of the world was really starting to understand - and thanks to Allister Sparks - helped to understand the true implications of South African racist policy.

SIEGEL: A very big story that he wrote about was the death of the anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who was in prison when he died. What was that story?

MATISONN: Well, when Steve Biko died, the government said that he died from a hunger strike. And Allister was able to find out from the pathologist. There was a private pathologist who tipped off Allister that the real cause was brain injury. So that had to be murder while in custody. And Allister got his team of journalists onto that and broke that story.

SIEGEL: In The New York Times obituary of Allister Sparks, I read today that his first language was actually Xhosa, the African language.

MATISONN: That's correct. We traveled together sometimes, and I remember him using it. Of course, that's the home language of Nelson Mandela.

SIEGEL: John, I suppose that by virtue of having been in his '80s, Allister Sparks was born into a pre-apartheid South Africa. Did that bring some different perspective to him to what he was doing?

MATISONN: Apartheid was formally ensconced in 1948. But prior to that, of course, there was a period of colonialism and racial discrimination that goes back all the way to the beginning.

I think he had more in common with someone like Mandela, who had been to some of those early church schools. All of those were put out of action after 1948. And the government wanted black people to learn strictly what the government told them to learn.

SIEGEL: John Matisonn, who used to be NPR's correspondent in South Africa. Thanks for talking with us about your longtime associate and friend, Allister Sparks.

MATISONN: My pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: Sparks, the South African journalist died this week. He was 83. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.