I had the very good fortune to spend a couple of hours today chatting with Allister Sparks, the legendary South African journalist who was editor of the gutsy Jo’burg paper the Rand Daily Mail for four crucial years 1977-81 when it was a leader in uncovering many of the sins of apartheid. What I hadn’t realized before talking to him was the degree to which, in recent years, he has turned his considerable energies and wisdom to trying to understand– and in in his own way to start to de-escalate– the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
(By the way, we’re both in Doha. We’ve been at the World Press Freedom Day event here.)
In particular, he told me a bit about the personal fact-finding trip he made in September 2006 to Damascus, to talk with the Hamas leaders there. After undertaking that trip, he went to Israel and the occupied territories, traveling around quite widely and talking to lots of people there, too.
I’ve looked for an online version of things Sparks wrote at the time about the trip, but have so far been able to find only the account that appears in the bottom half of this January 2007 article.
Sparks was quite forthright in telling me thought the situation in the occupied territories is “like apartheid– or worse.”
In the piece I linked to he wrote,
- When I ceased to be Editor of the Rand Daily Mail and other papers and became a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post el al, I decided to visit the ANC in exile and check out those preconceived impressions. As I think you know, it was an eye-opening experience for me to discover how sophisticated and pragmatic they were. It was an experience that changed my entire outlook on what should happen in my own country.
Recalling that, I decided to do the same with Hamas. So last September, on my own account and for my own personal interest, I flew to Damascus and spent two days at Hamas headquarters talking to their exiled leaders. Again it was an eye-opening experience to hear their side of the story and
discover the degree to which they, too, are sophisticated, pragmatic people who I believe are the only ones capable of negotiating a peace agreement that could stick – since, like the ANC, they are the only ones whose control extends to the people with the guns.
I came away with five hours of tape recorded conversation with these key leaders whom the authorities of both Israel and the US refuse to speak to – because they are “terrorists.” I don’t know of any other Western journalist who has done this. Why? Why haven’t these men and women who have preached to me over so many years about the importance of balanced reporting and getting “the other side of the story” done what I, with no funding or backing of any big organization, did?
Well, Allister, I have done it– also, like you, with no funding or backing from any big organization.
Anyway, I wanted to blog quickly here about a couple of the things he told me that struck a particular chord.
He said that when he was in Damascus, he had several long conversations with Mousa Abu Marzook, often described as Hamas’s deputy leader. (Khaled Meshaal was busy in meetings, but Sparks had one or more conversations with him by phone while he was there.)
He said that in those talks, he pitched to Abu Marzook the idea that if Hamas was successful in getting a hudna with (and therefore a meaningful degree of independence from) Israel, then they would most likely need to have numerous joint committees to coordinate various aspects of life… and that over time the work of those committees might become increasingly important, and the relations between Israel and Palestine would evolve into something like the EU, and later on into a single confederated body, something like Switzerland…
He said Abu Marzook expressed considerable interest in that idea. Later, when Sparks was in Israel, he pitched it to our mutual friend Yossi Alpher, who’s a ‘peacenik’ of the Left-Zionist variety, who had been born in the US and migrated to Israel as a young adult.
Sparks said that Alpher looked at him, absolutely aghast and finally stuttered, “But then we wouldn’t have Jewish state! It would be like living in a diaspora again– and this time, in such a dangerous place!”
Sparks remembered the word “diaspora” in there, very clearly. It is, obviously, a very strange word to use, since Yossi would still have been living in exactly the same place he’s living now.
Also, if the Israeli-Palestinian would have been solved for some time by that point, why would he think it would still be “dangerous”?
Sparks said he started to try to tell Alpher that he understood, perhaps, some of his consternation because he had watched the intense fear with which the Afrikaaners in his own country used, back in the bad old days, to view the prospect that their own political control over all of South Africa might one day have to be ended or diluted.
“I would have told him that the situation of the Afrikaaners in South Africa now is far better than it was in the days of apartheid. They are doing so well there these days! But I couldn’t tell him because he was still just too flabbergasted by the audacity of what I had proposed. I must say i was surprised by the vehemence of his reaction.”
Sparks then proceeded to tell me a number of things about the Afrikaaners and their culture that I hadn’t known before. He said that most of the Afrikaans-speaking ‘Whites’ had stayed in South Africa after the transition to democracy. (The country’s English-speaking “Whites”, by contrast, had many other options elsewhere– in Britain, Canada, Australia, the US, or New Zealand. So a greater proportion of them than of the Afrikaaners left once they’d lost their cushy, uber-privileged spot inside the system.)
- The Afrikaaners had no other place to go. South Africa was the only place they had to call ‘home.’ And since 1994, there has been a real flowering of Afrikaans-language culture in the country. Lots of poets and writers from their community who had started to write in English have been returning to Afrikaans. Did you know that the fourth largest media conglomerate in the whole world is one that started out as a small, regime-backed Afrikaans-language newspaper?
This is, by the way, the company that owns “News24” in South Africa… Allister said it also now owns a good chunk of People’s daily in China, and of Chinese Central TV. Who knew?
Oh, and on why the present situation in Palestine is worse than apartheid, he made these points:
- 1. The land area of the Palestinian “archipelago” is so much more fragmented, and so much smaller in toto, than that of any of the Bantustans;
2. “There was never a bloody great Wall around any of these Bantustans, let alone inside them, cutting them into even smaller fragments.”
3. “The apartheid regime probably really did want the Bantustans to succeed. They invested much more in them than most people realize… But of course, even with all that investment, the project could never have succeeded.”
We also talked a little bit about Sparks’s former colleague (employee?) Benji Pogrund, another left Zionist who’s noticeably less of a peacenik than Alpher. I am interested in the fact that both Alper and Pogrund are people who made a conscious decision to immigrate to Israel when they were already adults. (In Pogrund’s case, already a very mature adult indeed.) For both of them, living as they previously did, in pretty darn secure places with good continuing prospects, migrating to Israel represented a conscious decision to participate in the Zionist project… So for them, perhaps, the concept of “Israel as a Jewish state” is something they’ve invested a lot in and believe in quite defiantly… Whereas most, or perhaps all, of the Jewish-Israeli supporters of a one-state (South African style) solution that I know are people who grew up in Israel…
Anyway, one big thought I had was that it would be excellent to bring Allister to the US to do some speaking gigs about the Palestine situation. He hasn’t been there since February 2006, when he did this interview with Amy Goodman. (At the very end there, he expresses some some support for the one-state idea.)
And since then, he’s been to Damascus, gained a lot more information, insight, and wisdom into the Palestine situation.
If not a live interview, why not a good, well-organized video-conference? He really is someone who can add some deep experience and valuable perspective to this whole discussion.
Do it soon, somebody!