Donald Woods was born in 1933 at Hobeni in the Transkei region of rural Eastern Cape, and was educated at Christian Brothers College in Kimberley. After completing his Matriculation Examination, he enrolled at the University of Cape Town in 1952 to pursue a law degree. As a young adult, Woods initially supported the idea of separate development, but was critical of the way the National Party-led government implemented the policy.
However, he became increasingly disillusioned with the ideology itself. After two years as a law apprentice, Woods gravitated towards journalism, and in 1957 he entered formal politics by contesting for a parliamentary seat under the banner of the Federal Party, which rejected apartheid.
His campaign was unsuccessful, and he went back to his job as a cub reporter for the Daily Dispatch newspaper in East London. For two years during the late 1950s, he honed his skills as a journalist by writing and sub-editing for various newspapers in England and Wales. He later served as a correspondent for London’s now-defunct Daily Herald, travelling throughout the eastern and southern United States, eventually arriving in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he filed stories comparing US segregation with South Africa’s policy of apartheid.
He returned to South Africa and rejoined the Daily Dispatch in 1960, eventually becoming editor of the paper in 1965. Woods and his wife Wendy Bruce, whom he had married in 1962, had six children, but tragically lost an infant son, Lindsay, to meningitis at the age of 11 months.
As editor of the Daily Dispatch, Woods integrated black, coloured 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 increasingly critical of the government and as a result Woods began attracting the attention of the security police. During his 12-year stint as editor, he was prosecuted seven times under the apartheid government’s publication laws and sentenced to jail for exposing the brutality of the security police. On eight occasions, he successfully sued the apartheid government for defaming him by implying that he was disloyal to South Africa.
After witnessing the death of our friends and the excesses of our enemies, we knew only one rational purpose in life from that moment – to raise as much alarm as we could; to convey as much outrage as possible and to help hound the guilty ones out of power.”
Donald Woods 1999
In 1977, Woods’ close friend Steve Biko – the visionary leader of the “black consciousness” movement – was killed while in police custody, aged only 30. Woods was arrested and served with a banning order to prevent him from writing and campaigning. Following attacks on his home and family by the security police, he fled the country with his wife and children, arriving in London in 1978. The story of his escape is told in Richard Attenborough’s award-winning 1987 film, Cry Freedom.
In exile, he wrote eight books and campaigned ceaselessly against apartheid. He spent the last year of his life campaigning to erect a statue of Nelson Mandela in Trafalgar Square outside the South African High Commission in London, where anti-apartheid campaigners had demonstrated during the period of the apartheid regime. In 2001, shortly before succumbing to cancer, Donald Woods was awarded a CBE for his services to human rights.
The Donald Woods Foundation
After his death, Woods’ family and friends decided to commemorate his life and legacy by building on the work he had begun while in exile through his educational charity, the Lincoln Trust.
The Donald Woods Foundation emerged in 2003 with the aim of driving and facilitating rural upliftment and empowerment, and improving rural communities’ access to health and education. It engaged in extended consultation with rural communities in the Eastern Cape, where Woods was born, about what specific interventions these communities needed to recover from the effects of systemic and long-term deprivation. This has given rise to the development of extensive health, education and rural development programmes, all of which are the product of close partnerships with local communities and traditional leadership, to ensure not only direct relevance but also long-term sustainability.