Donald Woods

From Academic Kids

Donald Woods (December 15, 1933 - August 19, 2001) was a South African journalist and anti-apartheid activist.

As editor of the Daily Dispatch from 1965 to 1977, he became a friend of Steve Biko, and was banned by the government shortly after Biko's death in mysterious circumstances. He fled to London where he continued to foster opposition to apartheid. In 1978 he became the first private citizen to address the U.N. Security Council. Donald Woods was oneheroes of the national liberation struggle in South Africa. He was essentially an ordinary man, who loved music, chess and, above all else, cricket. But he was an ordinary man, in extraordinary circumstances, and he responded to them with spectacular courage and determination.

Donald was born in East London in the Province of the Eastern Cape on the South-east coast of South Africa, into a family who had lived there for five generations. Donald's ancestors arrived in 1820 to settle what the then an empty land to the east of Cape Town. Of course, the land was not empty, having been settled by the Khoisan, Khoikhoi and Xhosa peoples for many hundreds of years.

As he said himself, Donald grew up accepting the comforts of a normal white South African lifestyle. When he went to the University of Cape Town, where he studied law, he was even hopeful that the newly elected Nationalist Government would produce a better South Africa, with its new system of apartheid, benefiting all the peoples of the country. He was soon to realise that this was not the case.

He became a cub reporter and eventually went to work for the Daily Dispatch in East London in his beloved Eastern Cape. It was here that he met and married his wife, Wendy, who was to be a tower of strength in the years to come. They were soon the parents of a large family, and Donald became the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Dispatch.

Under Donald, the paper was very critical of the South African government, but it was also critical of the emerging Black Consciousness Movement, under the leadership of Steve Biko. And then, one day, came the major turning point in the lives of Donald, Wendy and their children. A young woman, Mamphela Ramphele, burst into the editor's office and berated Donald for writing misleading stories about the Black Consciousness Movement. She more or less challenged him to meet Steve Biko and Donald, being the good journalist that he was, agreed. The meeting went very well, with Steve Biko settling back into his chair--a gesture that Donald would come to know very well over the years--ready for a long discussion.

The two men became firm friends, which meant of course that Donald and his family attracted the interest of the South African Security Police (actually they were more like Secret Police). A life of harassment followed, but Donald did not let this affect either his friendship or the political support that he offered Biko. This was done not only through the columns of his newspaper, but in practical ways such as the employment of black journalists. South Africa in the mid-1970s was not an easy time to be a friend of one of the leading black activists outside prison.

On 16 June in 1976, the children of Soweto organised a march in protest against being taught in Afrikaans and against the Bantu Education system in general. They marched from the Morris Isaacson School intending to hold a rally outside the Education buildings in Johannesburg. The children were met by the police and ordered to disperse. The children refused and the police opened fire. As the children pelted the police with stones, South Africa went up in flames. The government responded by banning the Black Consciousness Movement and many other political organisations. Many people were issued with banning orders--Donald was one of them and was effectively placed under house arrest.

Steve Biko had been involved in clandestine contacts with the outlawed liberation movements, the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC). Returning to his home one evening from a trip to Cape Town, Biko was arrested, imprisoned and battered to death. He was transported naked, manacled, for 740 miles (1200 km) in the back of a police van to Pretoria, and died on the way. James (Jimmy) Kruger, the Minister of Justice, said that Biko died on a hunger strike, and said of his death "Ik laat me koud" ("It leaves me cold").

Donald went to the morgue with Ntsiki Biko and somehow managed to get photographs of Steve Biko's battered body. The photographs were published in the Daily Dispatch, and they exposed the lies of the South African government to the whole world.

Life in South Africa became intolerable for the Woods family, and Donald wanted to leave, but Wendy wanted to stay. Then, on their daughter's sixth birthday, a present was delivered. It was a tee shirt for the little girl, impregnated with acid. When Mary put it on, she suffered severe burns. As it was now clear that all the family were targets, the Woods decided to leave South Africa. Donald had to be smuggled out of the house, and made his way to Lesotho disguised as a priest. Wendy pretended that she was taking the children to stay with her parents for a family holiday, and joined Donald. Then, with the help of the Lesotho government, they flew to London, UK and safety.

This was the start of many long years of campaigning. Acting upon the advice of Oliver Tambo, the President of the ANC, Donald became a passionate advocate of sanctions against South Africa. He toured the United States, campaigning for sanctions against apartheid. President Carter arranged a three hour session for him to address officials in the State Department. He also spoke at a session of the United Nations Security Council.

Then Richard Attenborough decided to make a film about Steve Biko, based upon the books which Donald had written about his friend. Donald and Wendy became very involved in the project, working closely with Kevin Kline and Penelope Wilton, who played them, Denzel Washington, who played Steve Biko, and with Jonas Gwangwa, who composed the film score. The film was "Cry Freedom".

On 11 February in 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after serving twenty-seven years. That Easter, Mandela came to London to attend a concert at Wembley Stadium as a special "Thank you" to the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the British people for all their years of campaigning against apartheid. Donald and Wendy decided to buy Mandela a tie in the black, green and gold colours of the African National Congress to celebrate the event. On Easter Sunday, the family had assembled for lunch when the telephone rang. It was Nelson Mandela. He thanked them for the tie and said that he would wear it at the concert the next day, which he did. Donald apparently stood at attention throughout the phone call. Donald thoroughly enjoyed telling this story in later years.

It was a long time from Mandela's release to the first democratic elections in South Africa. Donald supported the fund-raising for the ANC election fund. His son, Dillon, was one of the organisers of the fund-raising appeal in Britain. On 27 April in 1994, Donald went to vote at the City Hall in Johannesburg. A cheering crowd took him to the head of the queue, giving him the place of honour so that he could be one of the first to vote in the new South Africa.

Following the election, Donald put his efforts into the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg. He has thus helped to ensure that journalists in South Africa, and especially those from the communities disadvantaged by apartheid, are given a proper grounding in what he described as their trade.

On 9 September in 1997, the twentieth anniversary of the death of Steve Biko, Donald was present in East London when a statue of his friend was unveiled by Nelson Mandela, and when the bridge across the Buffalo River was renamed the "Biko Bridge". He also gave his support to the Action for Southern Africa event in Islington, London honouring his friend, helping to secure messages from Ntsiki Biko, Mamphela Ramphele (now the Vice Chancellor of the University of the Western Cape) and Nelson Mandela. His support was also vital in securing the funding both for the statue, and for the Islington concert.

In the last year of his life, Donald gave his name to support for the appeal to raise funds to erect a statue of Nelson Mandela in Trafalgar Square, outside the South African High Commission, where anti-apartheid campaigners had demonstrated for so many years. He also went to Buckingham Palace to receive an Order of the British Empire (OBE).

Donald died of cancer on August 19, Woods


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