Donald Woods, etched in Eastern Cape folklore, is an international journalism icon

In 1958 a South African named Donald Woods joined me on the subeditors' table of the Western Mail, the daily morning newspaper for Wales printed in Cardiff.

There was no indication our friendship would radically change my family’s life, and that he would become a world figure, subject of a major film, Cry Freedom, directed by Richard Attenborough and   become the first civilian to speak at the United Nations in New York.

In 1966, when he was editor, he persuaded me to join him on the Daily Dispatch as night editor: Richard Branson has said, correctly, he could be a persuasive person.

In his early years he was an anti-apartheid editor but this hardened to activist in the 1970s, particularly after the development of his friendship with the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) leader Steve Biko. Donald referred to him as a future prime minister of South Africa. This would not have gone unnoticed by the National Party government.


Donald’s crusading zeal led him to drive the unseating of a conservative East London city council and replacing it with younger liberal people.

I was with him on a reformation of the East London Chess Club with modern facilities and a nonracial membership — meeting in a whites-only building behind the city hall with permission from the pro-apartheid mayor Robbie de Lange: those persuasive powers again.

All this paralleled my attitude of human rights for all in South Africa, but I became concerned with his shift into activism. This led to publishing articles by Biko under a pseudonym in the Dispatch, against apartheid regulations, and the employment of a woman member of the banned African National Congress on the editorial staff. This was dangerous stuff, especially with an increasingly edgy National Party government.

In a confidential discussion I urged him to continue as a vigorous campaigner for full democratic rights but to be less politically involved. He would have none of it and made it plain he would not change his course.

He had often said the government would act against him, rather than ban the publication of the newspaper. It was a portend of a brave sacrifice that was to come true.

On August 18 1977, Biko was detained after travelling to Cape Town for breaching a ban that prevented him leaving Ginsberg, situated just outside at then-King William’s Town, now Qonce.

Donald knew what could happen to Biko in the hands of the security police after so-called accidental deaths in their custody. He travelled to the home of Police and Justice Minister Jimmy Kruger in Pretoria and urged him to make sure no harm came to his friend.

It was to no avail. Biko was beaten by security police, savagely treated, and died from his injuries. Donald was both sad and angry when he came into my office to discuss the next day’s page one reporting the death. We worked through lunch time, Donald driving daring and emotional creativity, with my technical support.

Donald appreciated the serious effects of the death in custody to a degree unmatched by any other South African editor. It is a famous page one. Biko’s inhumane treatment and death was a watershed for South Africa and the beginning of the end for apartheid.

Donald was on his way to the United States with evidence that Biko had been killed by security police when he was stopped  at Johannesburg airport and banned for five years, which meant draconian restrictions and the end of his editorship. He went into exile in Britain with his family and did not return to South Africa until 13 years later.

Donald, fluent in Xhosa, son of the Transkei, was a major figure in the fight against apartheid, and a courageous humanist honoured around the world. He became a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for his fight for human rights, and a street in London bears his name, but I have repeatedly bewailed the lack of recognition, in his own country, particularly in the Eastern Cape.

There is only the award of an honorary doctorate by Rhodes University late in his life. Donald himself continued to honour others. He organised a statue of Steve Biko unveiled in East London by Nelson Mandela, and successfully worked have a statue of Mandela erected in central London.

I believe his reputation will grow rather than erode over time. When he returned to the editorial floor of the Dispatch after exile, there was a standing ovation from the young staff. The most famous editor in its history, and in good cause, will be a lasting inspiration for all working there and indeed journalists everywhere.

I visited Donald and Wendy often during the exile years. They were tough and uncertain times, with five children, at first in inadequate accommodation in north London. They were deeply homesick.

On a purely personal level, I still miss him. He was great company, a brilliant raconteur, and his fluent writing could range from the humorous to the serious political. In a friendship lasting from 1958 to his death in 2001 he never let me down, I never had to doubt his integrity. He was a great South African concerned for the future of all in the rainbow nation, constantly supported by his wife, Wendy.

 We remain in touch with his family: Joan and I are godparents to a son, Duncan, and we try to remember his birthday. I know the time when I moved from friend to something deeper, supporting the family at the funeral of their much-loved and mourned baby son, Lindsay.

Donald’s soul goes marching on. The registered charity, the Donald Woods Foundation, is a vital organisation providing health and education services in a large area around Hobeni, in former Transkei, the place of Donald’s birth.



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