Defend Truth


A final letter to my friend, Allister Sparks


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, a former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and is a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

Allister Sparks meant many things to many people in his life. To me, my wife, Lucie and our children he was a family friend and a towering intellectual who always inspired us with his unwavering commitment to social justice and human dignity. We shared this commitment. We were both passionate. And while we did not always agree on every single thing needed to be done to achieve that, we shared a close friendship for many decades.

(The following is the full text of Jay Naido’s eulogy for Allister Sparks, delivered at Liliesleaf Farm on Friday, 14 October 2016.)

Allister, you were a giant of independent journalism of our country. Your fiery pen, spared none who breached fundamental human values. You cut through the intrigues of our political class that spanned the whole of my lifetime. With surgical precision your words pumped oxygen into the stale, suffocating politics of uniformity and conformity. Your unrelenting pursuit of the truth drew the veil of secrecy that our political elites, even today seek to draw down again on our democracy. Your unyielding commitment to democratic values enshrined in our Constitution will inspire many generations of independent and fearless journalists to come who will carry this obligation deep in their hearts.

It was you, in the establishment of the Institute for Advanced Journalism (IAJ) who set the gold standard for training in independent journalism. It was you who offered Lucie, a talented journalist herself, her first job, when she came to live here from Quebec when we were married in 1991. It was you who taught not only me, but Nelson Mandela and much of the first Cabinet how to present our arguments succinctly and clearly in those perilous early stages of transition. To cut through the dreary cotton wool that politicians shroud themselves in. And on a more personal level, how to dress and fix the mop on my head. As you can all see there is still room for improvement. But that will have to wait until we renew friendship and debates up there, in the great newsroom in the sky.

I remember so vividly the SABC at its peak as an intrepid and independent public broadcaster under the leadership of the remarkable Zwelakhe Sisulu. I remember the joy it brought in my heart that there was an experienced hand when he appointed you to build the African footprint in the spirit of Pan-Africanism. It brought tears to your eyes to see the very same SABC today, stripped back to its days of an emasculated state broadcaster, an obedient echo of its Masters voice. It troubled you greatly that scores of courageous journalists are again toiling daily, this time under the new ‘Goebbels’ regime, all of that paid by us, the taxpayers who foot its bill for its extravagant stroking of the feathers of our new political elite.

Your memorial comes at an inflexion point in our democracy. Just a few days ago, charges were brought against our respected and competent Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, who followed an equally competent Minister before him, Nhlanhla Nene, who allegedly refused to sanction the nuclear deal. And let us not forget the courage of Deputy Minister Mcebisi Jonas who spoke about the Gupta State Capture allegations. This happens as our universities are burning and the central debate in our country are the politics of ‘State Capture’ that implicates our President.

The very same day frivolous charges were brought against Gordhan, our Minister of Energy announced that the nuclear build, which we don’t need or want, will be led by Eskom, which we do not trust or believe, and that it will not need the permission of the Treasury.

Our burning universities, are a mirror of the country that has reached a boiling point. Our country is burning. The threat of national university shutdown places us in a dire state. There will be no medical interns for our overloaded public hospitals, no subsidies for the universities and a bottleneck for the new matriculating entrants which cannot be accommodated.

Our President, meanwhile, is missing in action. But his hand through his hired underlings sees punitive, and what many in our country strongly believe, trumped up set of charges being brought against our Minister of Finance.

And to add insult to injury, the only Ministry able to deal with financing the timetable to free education is left out of the Cabinet sub-committee he has appointed to deal with this education crisis. It is dominated by securocrats, sending a clear message to students that this Government is determined to push through a security solution. That irresponsible decision, with an undertrained and understaffed police force, can only lead to more Marikanas.

I am sure you were bitterly disappointed in what South Africa of President Zuma turned out to be. So am I, as are the vast majority of our citizens, of all colours and hues who live together in this beautiful country. South Africa’s political centre has imploded. The factionalism within the ANC has now extended its tentacles into the very corridors of power in our state. What we are witnessing is a life-or-death struggle for the ascendancy of a faction led by the highest office in our land. They fully aim to impose hegemony, and they are coldly prepared to leave a scorched earth in their wake in order to succeed.

At the heart of this cancer is the management of mega-projects, our state owned enterprises, government procurement and, in particular, the proposed nuclear deal. A nuclear deal that we don’t need and we cannot afford. A nuclear deal that brings no long term benefits of job creation to our rocketing unemployment, or local industrial development. All this in a country where already one in four South Africans is officially unemployed.

Why should we spend a trillion rands on a nuclear deal, all done in a non-transparent way that raises our suspicions of bulging Panama off-shore account, and a stench an order of magnitude bigger than the Arms Deal? Why should we mortgage our future generations with public debt even before they are born? ‘The students demand for free education’ is supported by all of us. We should first and foremost demand that we invest in our most precious resource – the education and human development of our children?

Is there a sinister political agenda in play that will feed the nexus of toxic business interests and corrupt political elites? All I know is that the current team at National Treasury, all of whom I know, are the only ones who stand between them and the state coffers.

We are indeed on a slippery slope towards a failed society if we don’t take a stand, today. This is a trigger for political action that demands we put good governance and ethical leadership back at the forefront of our Constitutional democracy.

But we simultaneously need to tackle the other root cause of this political rot. And one we are not comfortable discussing in these leafy northern suburbs where we live – white and class privilege.

With our townships and universities burning, we have to recognise that our transition to democracy has remained an elitist one. It has largely benefited a small minority of super-rich, politically connected elites, both of the old SA as well as the new.

It has superficially sanitized a vicious and brutal exploitation of the black majority built on racial capitalism of yesteryear. The black underclass, in particular our youth, trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty in our townships and villages, is legitimately angry and restless.

And while our townships have been burning for the past decade, it is only front page news today because its bursting into the privileged bubble of our cities and suburbs, where our middle classes shelter from the storm.

This is what kept Allister awake at night and dominated our conversations. Last year he visited a project I’ve been working on in the eastern Free State, involving farmworker communities that are even today evicted from white-owned farms. Where even today the water source, which for decades’ communities have had rights to, has been arbitrarily cut off. A uncaring State has not taken that farmer to court for three years or delivered an alternative reliable water supply to the village.

In a democracy where all mineral and natural resource rights are held by the State, I see the brutal reality of white privilege. 

But Allister was also heartened at what he saw. That we have transferred land to the community, and with land title they will never again be evicted. For Allister, ownership of land was the foundation of citizenship.

He joyfully shared his wisdom with young activists from around the country, and in one his editorial pieces after his visit he had this to say,

“I have long advocated the granting of home ownership, with title deeds, to the millions of black South Africans living in rural and township areas; who live in municipal properties or former Bantustans where their tenure is controlled by tribal chiefs, as was the case during apartheid.

Without property ownership they have no physical security nor any economic standing. They have no way out of the poverty trap.

I have argued that giving these folk the land and homes they are living in, with title deeds, would be the gateway for the entry of millions into the national economy, to the benefit of everyone. But it has been like shouting into deaf ears.”

This was Allister I knew and respected.

Yes, we are all witness to an era where politically-sponsored apparatchiks are appointed to oversee the looting of our state-owned enterprises and government tenders. We all can see crippling incompetence that is drawing our economy and the hopes and aspirations of our people into the quagmire of corruption.   

But what about the untouched citadels of white privilege in our economy? What do we say about the cartels and collusion we see in our country that fixes prices of everything we need? Cynically, even of a staple food like bread that millions in our country survive on. And what do the executives get? A slap on the wrist. A fine that they pay off by raising bread prices. Is this justice? Real justice would see these CEOs and directors in jail. Our President is not the only one showing the middle finger to the vast majority of Black South Africans marginalised and excluded from our democracy as inequality rises.

Let us consider the fact that, in a country that is so-called food secure, one in three South Africans go to bed hungry? Our food supermarkets are brimming with food that the majority cannot afford. Food price inflation is rocketing over the official inflation and many millions have less to eat and even daily have to sacrifice meals. That is why I care what happens to the rand. Because is weakness drives up food inflation, transport costs and hits the poorest of the poor the hardest.

In the midst of all this poverty the only salary rises are the obscene bonuses paid to business executives. I am aghast that a public company like Shoprite Checkers can pay its CEO, Whitey Basson, a R50 million bonus in addition to a salary of nearly R50m and we think that’s normal. But he is not alone. It’s a disease across our economy.

It has become normal that one in five children in our country is stunted and suffer irreversible mental and physical damage even before they get to school. The fact that many black university students have to study on an empty stomach is normal.

The ABNORMAL has become the NORMAL in South Africa.

This is what Allister and I spent many hours talking about, debating. This is what the real national public debate should be. About economic freedom. About addressing land dispossession. About eradicating hunger. About building skills and livelihoods in a world where there are fewer and fewer jobs, even for the well-educated. Sadly, that will not happen under the current political leadership. And neither does business leadership inspire any confidence.

The world we are living in is changing dramatically because of the technological revolution and robotics with artificial intelligence. And we are distracted by the shenanigans of our ruling elites.

But the temperature is rising. We sit in the eye of a hurricane. The State, like it did in the Marikana Massacre, responds to protests with teargas, bullets and truncheons. We see an impatient and incensed citizenry responding in kind, burning down anything that represents State authority, unpardonably even libraries, schools and public community facilities. A cycle of violence is incubating. And violence as a language and form of engagement embeds itself in the social fabric, for many generations to come. Have we not learnt from our past?

Our business elites only stand up and complain when the debacles of our Government hit their pockets. Or they are rapidly exporting their capital. We see business confidence plummet and new investment grinding to a halt.

This is not the South Africa that Allister fought for. This is not the South Africa I fought for. Or any right thinking South African. We cannot betray the future generations. Time is running out. We were the beacon for the whole of Africa. And many of my friends on the continent shake their heads and ask what is their future if you fail in South Africa.

We need to be inspired again. We need stand up and be counted. Its not political parties that will save us. Once in power, they invariably forget why they are elected. In their arrogance their sole purpose becomes to stay in power. They will come and go. What we need is citizens to reclaim our country. We need independent organs of civil society – civics; unions; student, youth and women’s groups; and environmental organisations, communities and rural movements. We need to defend our public institutions and our Constitution from the onslaught it faces daily.

I know many in our country are fearful. We live in an environment where the politics of fear and impunity are fighting a life and death struggle to gain hegemony.

As Madiba shared with us, “I have learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave person is not he who does not feel afraid, but the one who conquers that fear.”

We have to save South Africa, our beautiful country from this plague of corruption before it is too late. Our covenant with our people on the doorstep of our freedom in 1994 in Mandela’s words, “Never, never and never again shall it be that in this beautiful land will we experience oppression of one by another”. DM


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