Donald James Woods

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Biographical information


Journalist, Anti apartheid activist, friend of Steve Biko, subjected to surveillance, placed under house arrest, fled to Lesotho, exiled in London.

First name: 
Middle name: 
Last name: 
Date of birth: 
15 December 1933
Location of birth: 
Elliotdale, Transkei
Date of death: 
19 August 2001

Donald James Woods was born in Elliotdale, Transkei on 15 December 1933. He was educated at Christian Brothers College in Kimberley. After completing his Matriculation Examination, Woods enrolled at the University of Cape Town in 1952 to study law but switched to journalism.  Woods initially supported the idea of separate development but was critical of the way National Party (NP) 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 (Wales), Toronto (Canada), and London (England) before rejoining the Dispatch 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 Woods became the editor of the East London Daily 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. As result Woods was prosecuted several times for violating apartheid’s publication laws. Woods in turn successfully sued the apartheid government for defamation a number of times. 

In 1975 Woods met the Minister of Police James ‘Jimmy’ Kruger requesting the easing of Steve Biko’s banning orders and as a consequence,  was placed under increasing police surveillance. After thestudent uprising of 1976, the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) was banned and its leaders placed under house arrest. Woods was also placed under house arrest. When Biko died in police custody, Woods denounced the government, leading to his own voice being.silenced. While he was banned he began authoring Biko. On New Year ’s Eve in 1977 he escaped to Lesotho and his family followed soon afterwards.

Woods and his family flew from Maseru, under United Nations passports, over South African territory, into Botswana before proceeding to London. After their arrival on 1 January 1978 they were granted political asylum. Once he was in exile, Woods continued to publish articles on the South African situation. He was invited to address the United Nations Security Council in 1978 on the issue of mandatory arms and economic sanctions against the South African government and became the first private citizen to do so.  

Woods founded the Lincoln Trust which helped to secure university education for exiled South Africans in Britain, America, Canada and Australia during the ‘80s and ‘90s. In 1987, Richard Attenborough directed the film Cry Freedom, about the friendship that developed between Woods and Steve Biko, based on the books written by Woods, Biko, and Asking for Trouble. After the fall of apartheid Woods remained in Britain but made regular visits to South Africa. In 1997 he attended the ceremony of the unveiling of the statue of Steve Biko in East London by Nelson Mandela. In 2001 he was honoured for his work in Human Rights when he was awarded the Honour of Commander of the British Empire (CBE). Woods died of cancer in London in 2001. 

• Anon, Donald Woods Biography, from the Donald Woods Foundation, [online], Available at  [Accessed 22 November 2010]
• Anon, South Africa Apartheid Activists – Famous South Africans – Donald Woods, from the South African Guide, [online], Available at [Accessed 22 November 2010]
• Smith A D, (2001), Donald Woods, enemy of apartheid, dies at 67, from the UK Independen, 20 August, [online], Available at [Accessed 22 November 2010]
•  Anon, Donald Woods - the Man Who Told us of Biko, from the BBC, [online] Available at [Accessed 22 November 2010]
• Anon, (2001),   Biko family mourn Donald Woods from CNN, August 20, [online], Available at  [Accessed 22 November 2010]
• Anon, 1977: Steve Biko dies in custody from the BBC, [online] Available at [Accessed 22 November 2010]

Last updated : 31-Jul-2017

This article was produced by South African History Online on 16-Feb-2016

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