Wendy Heather Woods (neè Bruce) was born on 5 February 1941 in Mthatha (formerly Umtata), Transkei (now Eastern Cape Province). An outstanding pupil in school, she matriculated with a first-class pass and left home when she was just 16 years old. After training as a librarian, she became a licentiate of the Trinity College of Music and became a music teacher.
She met her husband, Donald Woods, while she was still in school when their families were holidaying on the Transkei Wild Coast at their seaside cottages. They married in 1962. Although she did not hold any strong religious beliefs, her husband did and she converted to Catholicism. Over the next decade, they had six children – Jane, Dillon, Duncan, Gavin, Lindsay and Mary. However, their youngest son Lindsay contracted meningitis and died at 11 months old.
The family moved to East London, Eastern Cape, where Donald became editor of the newspaper, the Daily Dispatch in 1965. This was during a period of great political upheaval in the country, as the African National Congress (ANC) launched its military wing – Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) – in its fight against apartheid and the government intensified its attempts to neutralise resistance to its policies, resulting in the torture and murder of a number of imprisoned activists.
It was not until they met Steve Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness Movement that she and her husband started to become truly aware of the realities of life under apartheid for Black people. Biko lived a 30-minute drive away in King William’s Town, Eastern Cape. The Woods, who were impressed by his philosophy and persuasive ideas, were on one occasion invited (together with their five children) to spend the day at a clinic run by one of Biko’s friends, Dr Mamphela Ramphele.
Influenced by author Germaine Greer’s writings, Woods started viewing the world more analytically and for a while, grew more radical in thinking than her husband. Her political campaigning began when she joined the highly politicised anti-apartheid Black Sash, a White women’s resistance organisation. Through the Black Sash, she was involved in major anti-apartheid campaigns against bannings, the imprisonment of political detainees, and indefinite detention.
Her forthright personality meant that she could be very bold. During one of Biko’s prison terms for ‘defeating the ends of justice’, Woods went to visit him in jail. When she arrived at the prison, the prison warden told her that she could not see Biko because she as a White person was not allowed to visit a Black person in jail. After demanding to speak to the Commandant, she got her way and Biko was brought in. Upon seeing her, his face briefly lit up before returning to its previous stony stance as his jailers were still in the room. She had brought him several books to read, including George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
By the 1970s, as the Woods’ involvement in anti-apartheid resistance grew, she and her family grew on the government’s radar. Following the murder in detention of a Dispatch journalist, Mapetla Mohapi, the paper’s angry reaction lead to her husband becoming a person of interest to the security police and this resulted in years of harassment, intimidation, and death threats. Security police would camp outside their home and they had bullets fired at their house on two separate instances; there were midnight phone calls; their home and telephone were bugged with surveillance microphones and all calls were recorded, and on another occasion, the police arrived at their home to harass the labourers who were working on their house. Woods acted quickly, however, locking herself in the upstairs bathroom with the two men. When the police knocked on the door, she shouted that it was just her in the bathroom and they left, certain that no White woman would ever lock herself in a bathroom with two Black men.
When her husband was banned for five years under the Internal Security Act, after the news of Biko’s murder in police custody was published daily on the Dispatch’s front page, he was no longer allowed to work as a journalist or leave East London. Consequently, Woods travelled to Pretoria, Transvaal (now Gauteng), on her own to sit through the 13-day inquest into Biko’s death. She was deeply angered by how the security police had stripped him of his dignity, leaving him lying naked on the concrete floor of his cell.
While she was still away in Pretoria, her five-year-old daughter, Mary, received a parcel from the security police – a T-shirt that had been laced with acid powder which left severe burns on her face and arms for three weeks. This was the last straw for the Woods and in December 1977 they decided to leave and go into exile for their family’s safety.
Her husband left first, driving to Lesotho disguised as a Catholic priest, and she followed with the children the next day. When she got to the border, she was met with a border official who was in the throes of giving up smoking. As he perused through their passports, she quickly distracted him by offering advice on a drug that would help him after he quit smoking. Not realising what was going on, he stamped all six passports and they were allowed through.
The family’s escape through Lesotho, Botswana and Zambia was thanks to a number of people who assisted them along the way. This story was told in the 1987 film Cry Freedom by Richard Attenborough, which was based on a book written by Donald Woods about Biko’s murder.
They eventually settled in Surbiton, south London, England. However, exile was not an easy transition for Woods but she managed to provide stability for her children who were also struggling to adjust to their new home.
While her husband travelled around the world campaigning against apartheid, she juggled looking after the children, working for the International Broadcasting Trust, providing film script analysis for Marble Arch Productions, collecting thousands of books for the University of Fort Hare (where Nelson Mandela’s had studied), as well as writing articles for the cause. She worked for charities, most notably as the trustee and director of the Lincoln Charitable Trust, and also chaired Age Concern, Kingston upon Thames, and Amnesty International, Esher.
In 2007, as a trustee of the Mandela Statue Fund, initiated by Donald Woods before his passing in 2001, she unveiled a 2.7metre statue of Mandela in his presence, with the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown in Parliament Square, London. This was the culmination of a seven-year project, after persuading the United Kingdom authorities to help her realise her husband’s goal of having a statue of Mandela in Parliament Square.
In 2003, she founded the Donald Woods Foundation, which she chaired throughout the last decade of her life. According to her son, Dillon, through the foundation, Wendy built 13 clinics in the poverty-stricken rural areas of the Eastern Cape, completed 150,000 HIV tests, screened 75,000 people for TB, built a training centre and ran 70 training camps and workshops for more than 1,000 people who worked in health and education. The foundation also runs multiple programmes for schools, orphans, vulnerable children and home-based/palliative care. The ‘Health in Every Hut’ programme sought to visit and screen about 300,000 people in rural Eastern Cape.
Before and throughout her long exile in Britain, she devoted her life to her country – first fighting apartheid and later helping to rebuild it when democracy was ushered in. Although life under apartheid brought with it constant challenges and fear, when Biko was killed, Woods’ attitude shifted from fear and moved towards anger and defiance.
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- Express. (2013). Wendy Woods. Social activist. February 5, 1941 – May 19, 2013. Aged 72, [online], Available at: https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/404116/Wendy-Woods-Social-activist-February-5-1941-May-19-2013-Aged-72. (Accessed on 11 August 2020)
- Galloway, P. (1987). Out of Africa, [online], Available at: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1987-11-16-8703260435-story.html. (Accessed on 11 August 2020)
- Hain, P. (2013). Wendy Woods obituary, [online], Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2013/may/22/wendy-woods-obituary. (Accessed on 11 August 2020)
- Herbstein, D. (2013). Wendy Woods: Activist who with her husband, Donald, struggled against apartheid, [online], Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/wendy-woods-activist-who-with-her-husband-donald-struggled-against-apartheid-8740647.html. (Accessed on 11 August 2020)
- IOL. (2013). Social activist Wendy Woods dies, [online], Available at: https://www.iol.co.za/capetimes/social-activist-wendy-woods-dies-1519165#:~:text=Wendy%20Woods%2C%20a%20music%20teacher,Surrey%2C%20England%2C%20aged%2072.&text=Mandela%20was%20the%20guest%20of,to%20his%20death%20in%202001.. (Accessed on 11 August 2020)