1. Education

Donald Woods -- Death of an Activist


South African anti-Apartheid activist and journalist.

Date of Birth: 15 December 1933
Date of Death: 19 August 2001

When the black consciousness leader Steve Biko died in police custody in September 1977, journalist Donald Woods was at the forefront of the campaign to get the truth revealed about his death. At first the police claimed that Biko had died as the result of a hunger strike. The inquest showed that he'd died of brain injuries received while in custody and that he'd been kept naked and in chains for a prolonged period before his death. The ruled held that Biko had died "as a result of injuries received after a scuffle with members of the security police in Port Elizabeth." But why Biko was in jail in Pretoria when he died and the events attending his death weren't explained satisfactorily.

Woods used his position as editor of the Daily Despatch newspaper to attack the Nationalist government over Biko's death. This description by Woods of Biko reveals why he felt so strongly about this particular death, one of many under the apartheid regime's security forces: "This was a new breed of South African -- the Black Consciousness breed -- and I knew immediately that a movement that produced the sort of personality now confronting me had qualities that blacks had been needing in South Africa for three hundred years."

In his biography Biko Woods describes the security policemen testifying at the inquest: "We at the inquest could see their faces, could watch their demeanor under cross-examination, and could hear their words -- their version of the story. For the first time, these men, products and inheritors of the Afrikaner Nationalist tradition, were flushed out of their police station and their little interrogation rooms. For once they were in the position of having to account for themselves. These men displayed symptoms of extreme insularity. They are people whose upbringing has impressed upon them the divine right to retain power, and in that sense they are innocent men -- incapable of thinking or acting differently. On top of that they have gravitated to an occupation that has given them all the scope they need to express their rigid personalities. They have been protected for years by laws of the country. They have been able to carry out all their imaginative torture practices quite undisturbed in cells and rooms all over the country, with tacit official sanction, and they have been given tremendous status by the government as the men who 'protect the State from subversion'."

Woods was hounded by the police and then banned, which meant he was not to leave his East London home, nor could he continue to work. After a child's t-shirt with a photo of Steve Biko on it posted to him was found to have been impregnated with acid, Woods began to fear for the safety of his family. He "stuck on a stage moustache and dyed my grey hair black and then climbed over the back fence," to escape to Lesotho. He hitchhiked some 300 miles and swam across the flooded Tele River to get there. His family joined him and from there they went to Britain, where they were granted political asylum.

In exile he wrote several books and continued campaigning against apartheid. The movie Cry Freedom was based his book Biko. After 13 years in exile, Woods visited South Africa in August 1990, but never returned to live there. He died, aged 67, of cancer in a hospital near London on Sunday 19 August 2001.

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. African History
  4. Country History by Region
  5. Southern Africa
  6. South Africa
  7. People
  8. Donald Woods -- Death of an Activist

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.