Donald Woods - the Man Who Told us of Biko
Created | Updated Jan 18, 2011
Donald Woods (1933-2001) wrote the biography of Steve Biko's life and death and enlightened the world outside South Africa to the horrors brought about by the 'Apartheid' regime. His own story of his flight from that regime became the subject of Richard Attenborough's 1987 Academy Award-nominated film Cry Freedom.
Donald Woods was born in Elliotdale, Transkei in 1933, approximately 20 miles from the birthplace of Nelson Mandela. He was a fifth generation South African. His great-great-grandfather emigrated from Britain in 1820. He went to study law at Cape Town university but left without a degree, as journalism held more appeal to the young Donald. He started working for the East London Daily Dispatch, the paper he would eventually edit.
In 1957 he stood for Parliament on an anti-racial ticket for the Union Federal Party. He was heavily defeated and returned to journalism, working in Cardiff (Wales), Toronto (Canada), and London (England) before rejoining the Dispatch in 1960. Five years later he took over the reins of the paper, becoming the youngest newspaper editor in South Africa.
Woods was a liberal, but it wasn't until he first met Steve Biko that he became fully committed to the cause of Human Rights in South Africa and became radical in his approach to handling this issue. Initially he had been a critic of the Black Consciousness movements, claiming that they practised racism in reverse. However, when a black woman, Mamphela Ramphele, entered his office and asked him to visit Steve Biko, the first steps of his 'radicalism' were taken.
Meeting in a converted church in the black township of King William's Town, Biko showed Woods that he was interested only in peaceful politics to bring about change. Once this realisation came about, the two men became friends and Woods' education into the real issues of South Africa began. In 1975, Woods went to the Police Minister, James Kruger, asking for an easing on Biko's banning orders. The end result was that he himself came under even closer scrutiny and observation by the authorities. He was prosecuted seven times over items he published. When Biko died in police custody, Woods denounced the authorities, leading to his own voice being banned.
While he was banned and under very close and overt supervision, he started writing Biko, a 175,000 word tribute to the man. He worked on it by night, hiding it in the sleeve of a record of Winston Churchill's speeches. By day he played chess, fooling his guards into thinking this was his main pre-occupation. He and his wife, Wendy, planned to leave South Africa because of these restrictions. When one of his daughters was injured by an acid-covered T-shirt posted to the house, his plans to escape South Africa accelerated.
Donald Woods embarked on his escape on New Year's Eve, 1977. After many close calls and interest being shown in his journey by police officers, he finally crossed the Telle River in full flood and into Lesotho. He headed to the British High Commission where the Commissioner, Jim Moffatt greeted him with the words, 'Do come in, would you like a cup of tea?'. Meanwhile Wendy and the five children also made their escape with the cover story of spending the New Year with family in the country. Within days Donald was in London and the world's press were full of the story of his flight from South Africa.
He continued to write freelance articles for numerous papers, and books on the South African situation, giving many lectures around the world. He returned to South Africa to attend the wedding of Nkosinathi Biko, Steve's son. Woods, a man of great courage and humility, spent his years of exile campaigning for the end of apartheid in his own quiet way.
His interest in chess continued in England. He played away at Surbiton Chess club, near his adopted home, and was made the club's honourary President. Sadly, in 2001, cancer took this great, unassuming champion of the anti-apartheid movement. His son Dillon continues his tradition of helping the vulnerable by involving himself in aid work.