Responses to Sparks’ Verwoerd comments: the good, the bad and the over-cautious

It’s not easy to upstage a newly elected leader simply due to a few misplaced words. But Allister Sparks did just that at the Democratic Alliance’s elective congress on the weekend when he labelled Hendrik Verwoed, the “architect of apartheid”, as “smart”. MUHAMMED ISMAIL BULBULIA summarises the good, the bad, and the over-cautious responses to Sparks’ speech.

So what did veteran journalist Allister Sparks actually say in his address to the DA congress? In his own words: “I’ve encountered some really smart politicians – Harry Lawrence… Margaret Ballinger, Helen Suzman, Zach de Beer, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, Marais Steyn, Japie Basson, and, yes, Hendrik Verwoerd. But, after all those years, I have to say, objectively viewed (and) setting aside my personal friendship, I rate Helen Zille as the smartest political tactician of all.”

Of course, being lauded as one of the smartest politicians alongside Hendrik Verwoerd requires some form of complimentary backscratching, which is why former DA leader Zille stepped up to defend Sparks’ comments to the surprise of absolutely no one.

Zille said that critics were “taking a part out of the speech and completely distorting it” and that “this is totally wrong in the context of the speech.” Yes, because saying Verwoerd was a smart politician can be contextualised, but saying Hitler can be admired for his “charisma and organisational skills” is just plain offensive. Watch out, Wits University – it seems as if Sparks has his eye on the SRC presidential vacancy.

The natural response to any form of praise directed at the man responsible for formulating critical apartheid policies is a) outrage or b) gently pointing the apartheid admirer in the general direction of Orania. Columnist Eusebius McKaiser chose the first option and  spearheaded the wrath of Twitter by comparing Sparks to Dlamini and asking whether they were “on nyaope.” McKaiser expressed disgust at the silence and hypocrisy following Sparks’ comments, saying that “the remarks by both are equally morally indefensible” and challenging Sparks to a public debate to “assess the moral weight” of his comments.

Sparks, obviously not realising the gravity of his words, further fanned the flames by blaming the criticism of his comments on McKaiser, calling it a “manufactured outrage”. McKaiser seized on the underlying message of Sparks’ attempted deflection and responded that it is “absurd that he can think that black people or progressive white people who were watching what he said, could not be outraged without my mediation.”

The final course of action that one could choose to take in the advent of such ridiculous rhetoric is to write a column on the issue that doesn’t address it at all. In a column published on Monday morning, Business Day editor Songezo Zibi listed several issues that he wished to explore and analyse in further detail – one of them being Sparks’ comments – and then abruptly ended his piece having analysed none of them.

Race relations are “at a low ebb”, writes Zibi, and South Africans are “angry about everything all the time”. But instead of addressing any of the issues he’s mentioned or offering a perspective on Sparks’ comments, Zibi spends more than 800 words essentially being the girl that doesn’t even go there from Mean Girls.

South Africans are angry and Zibi needs time to make up his own mind about Sparks’ comments. We’re not specifically saying that this is because Sparks is a Business Day columnist (okay, maybe we are saying that), but still, maybe he has a point.

You can watch extracts of Sparks’ comments in an eNCA video here.

–  Featured image: Verwoerd’s grave by M.Uebel via Wikimedia Commons.