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.