Donald Woods, enemy of apartheid, dies at 67

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The Independent Online

Donald Woods, the white South African journalist who became one of the best-known campaigners against the apartheid regime, died from cancer yesterday, aged 67.

Mr Woods, a newspaper editor whose dramatic escape from South Africa in 1977 was immortalised in Lord Attenborough's film Cry Freedom, died in hospital in Surrey where had been receiving chemotherapy. He had been suffering from cancer for two years and had undergone surgery to remove a lung and a kidney. He leaves a wife, Wendy, whom he married 39 years ago, and five children.

Last night the South African President, Thabo Mbeki, paid tribute to "the remarkable courage that Mr Woods had shown as an editor against apartheid". He praised the family for "enduring the remarkable circumstances of their escape from tyranny" after Mr Woods revealed how the Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko was beaten to death in police custody.

When Mr Biko died in October 1977, Mr Woods refused to believe the authorities' claim that his friend had succumbed to the effects of a hunger strike. Mr Woods, who had been editor of the Daily Dispatch since 1965, launched a lecture tour to spread the word that Mr Biko had died in suspicious circumstances. That action obliged the government to proceed with an open inquest.

This led to a state of open warfare between Mr Woods' family and the apartheid security police. He was issued with a five-year "banning order" ­ a kind of internal exile that prevented him from being in the presence of more than one person at a time. At his chess club, he had to ask for permission from the police to speak to his opponents.

In the autobiography that inspired Cry Freedom, Mr Woods described how the walls of their home in East London were daubed with slogans, their post was intercepted and, in December 1977, two children's T-shirts printed with Mr Biko's photograph were sent to the house. When five-year-old Mary tried one of them on, her eyes smarted and she screamed. It had been impregnated with acid. This incident prompted the family to leave South Africa.

In the dead of night, Mr Woods, disguised as a Roman Catholic priest, left his home secretly, travelled to the border with Lesotho and crossed into the tiny landlocked country where he was met by Wendy, their three sons and two daughters.

From there, they flew to the United Kingdom. Mr Woods, who was the author of seven books, remained in Britain after South Africa's first all-race elections in 1994 but visited his country many times and trained journalists there.

Mr Woods' association with Mr Biko defined his battle against apartheid and turned him into one of its most effective opponents in exile. A lifelong fluent speaker of Xhosa, the language of the Eastern Cape, he was to admit in later years that "until I met Steve Biko I did not know my own country". He saw in Mr Biko a future prime minister.

In 1978, Mr Woods became the first private citizen invited to address the United Nations Security Council. He was appointed a Commander of the British Empire last year for his services to human rights.

Last night the South African government issued a letter written by President Mbeki to Mr Woods this year, revealing their close links. Mr Mbeki thanked Mr Woods for sending him a copy of his book, Rainbow Nation Revisited, which he described as an "inherently friendly assessment" though he added: "I felt you were a bit bearish in your assessment of the South African government's policy over Zimbabwe", which ''is carefully measured and calculated to be the most effective way forward".

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