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OUR PEOPLE: Donald Woods

Updated: Aug 29, 2019

Donald James Woods was born at Hobeni near Elliotdale on 15 December 1933 and educated at Christian Brothers College in Kimberley. 

After completing matric, Woods enrolled at the University of Cape Town in 1952 to study law but later switched to journalism.  He initially supported the idea of separate development but was critical of the way the National Party-led government implemented the policy.

As he increasingly became critical of the ideology of separate development he entered politics by joining the Federal Party. In 1957 he contested for a parliamentary seat but was defeated.

Woods returned to journalism, working in Cardiff, Toronto and London before joining the Daily Dispatch in East London in 1960. 

In 1962 he married Wendy Bruce and over the next ten years they had six children.

In 1971 the Woods family suffered a tragedy when their youngest son, Lindsay, aged 11 months,  contracted meningitis and died.

In 1965, when he was still only 31, Woods was appointed the editor of the Dispatch. He integrated black, colored and white editors by making them sit in the same working area in violation of the government’s policy of segregation. The editorials of the Daily Dispatch became critical of the government.

Being an editor in South Africa under apartheid was, as one editor observed, like walking blindfold through a minefield. During 12 years in the job, Donald was involved in 37 lawsuits against the government or its supporters. He initiated 16 of them - and won them all.

While editing the Dispatch, Woods befriended Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) leader Steve Biko.

In 1975 Woods met the Minister of Police James ‘Jimmy’ Kruger requesting the easing of Biko's banning orders and, as a consequence,  was placed under increasing police surveillance. After the student uprising of 1976, the BCM was banned and its leaders placed under house arrest - as was Woods.

When Biko died in police custody on 12 September 1977, Woods denounced the government and began campaigning about it. Soon after, Woods was placed under a five-year ban and stripped of his editorship of the Dispatch. He was not allowed to speak publicly, write, travel or work for the duration of his ban.

Over the next year, he was subjected to increasing harassment, and his phone was tapped. The final straw came when his six-year-old daughter was severely burned by a T-shirt laced with ninhydrin. Convinced that the government was trying to have him killed, Woods decided to flee South Africa.

On New Year ’s Eve in 1977, disguised as a priest, he escaped to Lesotho and his family followed soon afterwards.

After their arrival on 1 January 1978 they were granted political asylum and Woods continued to publish articles on the South African situation. He was invited to address the United Nations Security Council in 1978 on the issue of mandatory arms and economic sanctions against the South African government and became the first private citizen to do so.  

He gave 462 lectures at universities and colleges in America alone; he briefed 37 western governments about apartheid (relentlessly pressing for sanctions against the apartheid regime); and received numerous awards, honorary degrees, a Nieman Fellowship, an invitation to address the UN Security Council - the first ever issued to a private citizen - and, last year, a CBE from the Queen.

Invited to the White House, Donald was asked by President Carter: "Mr Woods, what should we be doing about South Africa?" Donald replied, "Mr President, I would need three hours to detail the reply to that."

Woods founded the Lincoln Trust which helped to secure university education for exiled South Africans in Britain, America, Canada and Australia during the ‘80s and ‘90s and in 1987, Richard Attenborough directed the film Cry Freedom, about the friendship that developed between Woods and Steve Biko.

The film was primarily shot on location in Zimbabwe and in Kenya due to political turmoil in South Africa at the time of production. As a film showing mostly in limited cinematic release, it was nominated for multiple awards, including Academy Award nominations for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Original Score, and Best Original Song. It also won a number of awards including those from the Berlin International Film Festival and the British Academy Film Awards.

After the fall of apartheid Woods remained in Britain but made regular visits to South Africa. In 1997 he attended the ceremony of the unveiling of the statue of Steve Biko in East London by Nelson Mandela.

In 2001 he was honoured for his work in Human Rights when he was awarded the Honour of Commander of the British Empire (CBE).

Donald Woods died in London on 19 August 2001 of cancer, aged 67. He was survived by his wife of 39 years, Wendy, two daughters and three sons.

Source: SA History / The Guardian

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