Melanie Verwoerd

Hamba Kahle, Allister

2016-09-21 07:12

Melanie Verwoerd

We differed 34 years in age. And yet, for a short while our friendship defied all the barriers of the three and a half decades between us.

I met Allister Sparks for the first time 23 years ago, when he came to Stellenbosch to interview me and my now ex-husband for his book Tomorrow is Another Country. I naturally knew of him and was familiar with his work. In the two decades that were to follow before we met again, I remained aware of his writings. After I returned from Ireland, I wrote to him and asked if we could meet. He agreed immediately and invited me to lunch at one of his favourite restaurant’s in Cape Town, Maria’s on Dunkley Square. We sat outside under the tree in the blazingly hot weather. (He came from the Eastern Cape, from a farm called Hotfire, which ensured a life-long love for the heat). I don’t share Allister’s love for the sun, but three hours later we were still talking...as we did every day until his death.

Allister was simply one of the most extraordinary men I had ever met. He is of course famous for his writing and a journalism career that spanned 66 years. I got a sense of what a long period of our history his career covered, when he recently entertained my children with personal anecdotes about their great-grandfather, HF Verwoerd, whom he had interviewed for the first time as a 19-year-old.

His passion for journalism, for telling the truth and exposing the secrets of those who have much to hide, never wavered. Although infuriated about what is currently happening in our country, he was proud of what he and a generation of journalists achieved and the role they played in making the world aware of the horrors of apartheid. Despite being arrested and fired as editor for his personal efforts, he always downplayed his role, insisting that it was a collective effort.

His almost 70 years in journalism left him with a memory and knowledge of local and international affairs which were absolutely breath-taking. The extraordinary thing was that Allister never received any formal tertiary education, something he deeply regretted. There wasn’t money and he was told by a newspaper editor in Queenstown that it would be a waste of time. And so his encyclopaedic knowledge of history, politics, music, literature, art, wine as well as the numerous languages he spoke, were all self-taught. It was therefore extremely important to him to ensure that all his grandchildren would be able to study at any university in the world. For the same reason he supported two charities of friends who focussed on children in the townships. But he enjoyed very few things more than supporting and training young journalists. I have met countless journalists who have told me that Allister “trained them up” or gave them their first break.

It is impossible for me to give justice to Allister’s professional career and I am sure that much will still be written about this part of his life by others, who shared it with him. Although we did political roadshows together and shared our political thoughts and writings daily, it is the more private, personal side of Allister that I will miss most.

Allister faced many tragedies in his life. Both his first and second wife died very young and he was left to raise his four boys largely on his own. He rarely spoke about the details of these difficult times, but once wrote to me that he believed that he “had been toughened by so much pain and grief”. I think that it was this deep personal experience with pain that made him so gentle as a friend. He had enormous empathy with and interest in people, which extended beyond those closest to him. Any of our frequent visits to restaurants ended up with him and waiters exchanging long, personal histories in isiXhosa (he spoke it fluently) and parting at the end of the night like old friends. In hospital last week, already very sick, he recited all the nurses’ names and their personal histories whilst joking with them in isiXhosa. They were all clearly charmed by him.

Allister certainly was a charmer. Despite having lost two wives through death and one through divorce, he never gave up on love and romance. Already in his 80s, he told me that he had no intention of being alone for the rest of his life. He understood the charm of old-school chivalry and was a fan of flowers, perfume, champagne and Pablo Neruda. Yet, it was not in a chauvinistic way. He deeply respected strong women and loved rigorous intellectual engagement with them.

What I perhaps will miss most of all is Allister’s laugh and his mischievous sense of humour. Earlier this year, we were held up at gun point in his house in Rivonia in an armed robbery. The three robbers ordered us to lie on the sitting room floor. Concerned about Allister’s well-being, I begged the three men to allow him to sit on the couch. “You can see he is a very old man. He can’t do anything,” I pleaded, as I heard Allister give a little annoyed snort behind me. They thankfully agreed, but afterwards Allister berated me: “Why did you tell the guys I was too old to take them on? I was going to flatten them all.” He then burst out laughing. A few hours before he fell into a coma last week, I asked him if he was scared. He said he wasn’t and then gave a little giggle and said: “I know I won’t die young”.

Despite having reached such an advanced age, Allister never became old. He lived life to its fullest and did not for a moment give into the challenges that comes with more than eight decades of hard living. His last column appeared just days before he went into hospital. Two weeks earlier we did a political roadshow together with numerous appointments in Johannesburg and Cape Town. During that time, he rented a car and drove the difficult road to Betty’s Bay and back in one day.

In December last year, he drove to Cape Town and back on his own for his Christmas holiday. He enjoyed going out and entertaining people – always with copious amounts of good wine. He recently went to London to speak at his granddaughter’s school graduation. He sent me the speech beforehand and said that this was to form the basis of a new book he wanted to write. It was a tour de force as Allister’s writing always was. He still had many dreams of holidays abroad, and plans for another TV series on Africa.

Allister’s passing has left this country and world a poorer place. I find it difficult to describe how much I will miss our chats in front of the fire, with a glass of wine and his two beloved Labradors asleep next to us. Perhaps the best way of saying goodbye to this extraordinary man is through the closing words of his last public speech: “So (my) message is: Get to know ‘the other.’ Empathy and understanding...go forth with it and good luck to you all.”

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