Tribute to Allister Sparks – be an activist with empathy

Be an activist with empathy. That was the essence of Allister Sparks’ message as the keynote speaker at the graduation of his granddaughter, Vicky, earlier this year at the Southbank International School in England. Allister was, along with people like Zwelakhe Sisulu and Barney Mthombothi, part of what I called the SABC’s Camelot period and what he called its Prague Spring in the early 1990’s – that period when all seemed possible, when we thought our dreams would be realised, that period before the disillusionment set in. There was no hint of that disillusionment in his speech though, just pragmatism – beware of ideologies – combined with the essence of what Nelson Mandela stood for: ‘So my message to you is: Be conscious of the need to live harmoniously in this polyglot village.’ At 11:30 this morning a memorial service for Sparks will be held at Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, Johannesburg – Ed Herbst

The full speech

What a pleasure it is to be here with you on this big day in your lives.

What a fortunate group of young men and women you are. Not only have you been able to study at a truly fine school but you have had the special advantage of being able to do so as part of a wonderfully mixed international group. I am told there are 66 different nationalities at Southbank International School – one-third of the world — and 29 in this graduating IB class alone. That’s quite something. It enables you to enter your adult lives with a truly broad world view. A wonderful advantage which touches on the main theme I want to talk about this afternoon.

Veteran South African journalist Allister Sparks has passed away. Pic: Youtube.com.
Veteran South African journalist Allister Sparks.

Of course I come to you not as an educationist or a vocational specialist to tell you how to get on in you careers. I am a journalist, a news hound.  Have been all my life. I joined my first newspaper 66 years ago — I guess that was before many of your parents were born.  Makes me feel a bit like Methuselah.

So what has this old fogey got to say to you?

Well, if journalism does anything, it pitches you into the vortex of life. You meet a huge range of people, from kings to crooks, and you witness the passage of events from close-up. It’s life at the rock-face. And in the course of that you get to know a lot about life. In bits and pieces, I guess. It is said that a good journalist gets to know a little about everything, and a lot about something.

In my case, I suppose, what I have come to know a lot about is the turbulent history and politics of my own country. I have witnessed the rise of the extreme racist policy of apartheid and seen its collapse. I was there as the great Nelson Mandela gave birth to the new democratic South Africa; and now I am watching my reborn country run into difficulties under a corrupt and incompetent President.

So what can I tell you from that roller-coaster experience? First, that your real process of learning begins now. Now as you leave school. What school has done for you is to prepare you for a life-long learning process. I knew little when I left school; and now, in my octogenarian years, I am still learning — and aware as time runs out how much I still need to learn.

Read also: Farewell Allister Sparks, a true giant of SA media

I still remember an assembly lecture by my old high-school headmaster as my class was preparing for its school-leaving exams. Learning, he said, was like climbing a mountain. When you are at the bottom, your horizons are short and you think you know everything. Then as you climb higher your horizons grow wider and you realise how much there is still to learn. Until you reach the top of the mountain, where, like me, you panic at the realisation that you are never going to know enough.

But if there is one supreme truth I have discovered in my long climb it is that there is no final truth. There is no summit to that mountain. No attainable perfection in the quest for a better life, for the perfect social order.

When you are young, you tend to be a rebel. There is so much wrong in the world that you feel you must put it to rights; you must become an activist. The old order, the older generation, is so static, so stuck in its ways, so fuddy-duddy, so ossified, that it must be broken down and make way for a new, more dynamic, more equitable order. If you are a worthwhile young person you have to be an idealist. Maybe even a revolutionary. A Che Guevara, whose portrait hangs on so many young people’s walls.

Of course it’s not only young people who are attracted to these radical ideas. Marx and Engels and Lenin and Stalin and Fidel Castro were not young. But young people are easily attracted to ideologies that seem to promise some kind of messianic triumph of good over evil and the advent of the perfect solution.

But be warned — there is no such thing! There is no utopian solution. It’s a nice idea, but the quest for it can be very dangerous. Because the recurring promise of ideological solutions to all the ills of the world have been the cause of most of history’s great conflicts.

I guess we all have our key gurus who influence us as we make our way through life. One of mine has been the Oxford philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, who was born in Latvia, spent his childhood in Russia, lived through the Russian Revolution, then moved to Oxford, where he died at the age of 88. So that was quite a mountain he climbed.

One of Berlin’s fascinations was the range of modern doctrines that are incompatible with one another — industrial organisation vs human rights; bureaucratic rule vs doing one’s own thing; good government vs self-government; security vs freedom.

He was fascinated by how easily democracy can turn into its opposite, the oppression of minorities; and above all the mortal danger of the age-old dream that there could be, must surely be, a final solution to all human ills — and that this can be achieved by revolutionary change to enable all humankind to be virtuous and happy, wise and good and free for all time.

It is an apocalyptic dream that has its origins in most of the world’s great religions, and has found its political expression repeatedly in chiliastic ideologies.

The trouble with ideologies, as Berlin notes, is that if you believe you have such a solution to ensure permanent human happiness, then in the name of humanity you dare not allow anyone to oppose it.

“If this is possible,” he says, “then surely no price is too heavy to pay for it; no amount of oppression, cruelty, repression, coercion will be too high, if this is the price for the ultimate happiness of all humanity.”

That, I submit, is why ideologies and revolutions tend to lead to one-party dictatorships, beginning with the shutting down of free media and freedom of speech and ending with guillotines and gulags.

Another influential person in my life was a celebrated German journalist and intellectual, Marion von Doenhof, a countess actually, who spent her early life in a castle in East Prussia and who later became fascinated by South Africa and made frequent visits there, which is how I came to meet her.

Marion had a colourful life. She was part of the resistance to Hitler before the Second World War, became part of the group that tried to assassinate Hitler towards the end of the war, but luckily was one of the few members of that group who escaped execution.

Then, as the Russian armies invaded Germany from the east, she closed her castle doors, didn’t bother to lock them, left her Mercedes Benz in the garage and mounted a horse to ride for seven weeks 1,000 km westward to Hamburg, where after the war she founded one of Germany’s greatest newspapers, Die Zeit.

The horse, of course, was so she could go off-road and avoid the masses of fugitives congesting them.

Marion Doenhof worked as a journalist for her own newspaper until her death at the age of 92. When she was in her 90s, still sharp and vigorous, I interviewed her for a radio programme. “Countess,” I asked her, “in your long and eventful life have your learnt one big thing above all others?”

She thought for a moment, then said: “Yes. That there is no true way. Hegel was right. The pendulum swings.”

Just like that. Short and sweet, from the mouth of a sage who had lived long and seen a lot. The political pendulum keeps swinging, from left to right, thesis, antithesis, synthesis and back again — maybe bringing a little advance each time, but never perfection. So Russia is back today more or less where it started, with Tsar Vladimir Putin. But at least he was elected.

This doesn’t mean you mustn’t become an idealist. Oh no! That’s what youth is for, to inject a wake-up jab of idealism into the stodgy old society. It is your duty as citizens when you leave here to be idealists, activists if necessary. Never allow injustice, or the violation of human rights, or anything that might lead to that to pass unchallenged. Always remember Edmund Burke’s admonition: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

But always beware of the pitfalls of ideologies. They can be intoxicating. Idealism yes, utopianism no. And there’s a thin line between. Be an idealist, but always have enough empathy to see the other side of any coin.

Now let me return to where I began, with how fortunate you are to have had your education here in this broadly internationalist environment. I want you to look at the world you are about to plunge into. It’s undergoing the most dramatic change in all history.

Forty-eight years ago a Canadian professor, Marshall McLuhan, coined the phrase: “The global village.” It was early in the age of the electronic revolution, but he foresaw what it would lead to. As he put it: “The globe is being electronically contracted into no more than a village, bringing all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion that has heightened human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree.”

Half a century on we are all in that village, but has it heightened human awareness of responsibility?

McLuhan thought it would render individualism obsolete and collective interdependence obligatory. We would all become neighbourly fellow villagers.

Well, I think we can already see that human society moves rather more slowly than electronic technology. We are all neighbours in that global village now, but what of our neighbourliness?

Are we all getting along OK with all our new neighbours, or is their proximity in the village, with their different histories and cultures and religions and behaviour, rubbing us up the wrong way?

Do we understand anything about the culture and faith and traditions of the Muslim family next door, or the African family, or the Asian family, or any of  the  many other variations of  “the other?”

Or are we feeling NIMBY about them — not in my back yard, thank you?

And what if there are problems, neighbourly disputes? For this global village is also a nuclear village. It can blow us all up. Any little neighbourly difference, or misunderstanding, can be genocidal.

Let us take note, even as we gather here today, that the pace of global integration is speeding up. Jet travel and digital communication have ensured that. Business has become transnational, and all those involved in it have spread around the globe as a result. And as long as the wide inequality gap remains, the “wretched of the earth,” as Frantz Fanon called them, will keep moving relentlessly towards those parts of the world where they believe they will have better lives.

There is bound to be a backlash in the developed countries against this relentless human influx, but believe me it is unstoppable – whatever the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson may say. It is going to be one of the most challenging social and political realities that your generation will have to face.

So my message to you is: Be conscious of the need to live harmoniously in this polyglot village. You enter it with a huge advantage, having been educated and spent some of your most formative years here in an international, multicultural community. You know it is not just possible, but that it’s stimulating and energising. Take that message with you as you move from here out into the great world of the global village. Become activist citizens in it.

Take Archbishop Tutu’s idealistic metaphor of the “rainbow nation” with  you  and  apply it to the “rainbow village.”  Which is to take pride in your own identity, but recognise the value and contribution of all the others alongside yours — because it is all the colours together that makes the rainbow beautiful.

Let me conclude by passing on something Nelson Mandela once told me. That it was while he was in prison that he came to understand what would be required to bring about change in apartheid South Africa. He was confronted by prison warders who were among the most racist and brutal of all white South Africans in their dealings with black people. He wanted to find out why. He started to engage them in conversation and soon found that they had many problems — they were not from the cream of white South African society: they were poorly educated, poorly paid, they had money problems, family problems, all manner of problems, and he being a lawyer found he could offer them legal advice.

They began coming to him for help, and that opened the door for him to question them more deeply. And as he came to understand them better he realised that the source of their racist aggression was fear. Fear of the black majority, fear of their own economic, personal and national survival as white Afrikaners if the black majority ever came to power.

That is when he realised that the only way black South Africans could ever be freed was if he could free the white Afrikaners of their fear. That is when he began to think in terms of combining the ANC’s struggle campaign with a policy of racial reconciliation, to reduce those fears and open the way for a negotiated transformation. And that is how it happened.

So the message is: Get to know “the other.” Empathy and understanding. You already have that message. Go forth with it and good luck to you all.