For Donald Woods. one-time banned South African newspaper editor. friend ofSteve Biko and now one of that troubled country‘s most famous exiles. apartheid and the constant threat from the security police can sometimes seem very far away. Other times it only takes a phone call. and all the old problems are back with him again.
I had just finished my interview with Mr Woods and was about to leave when the telephone rang. When he returned. some of his relaxed and easygoing humour had
somehow disappeared. A friend of his in the Transkei had just been arrested — another in a long line of anti-apartheid campaigners to fall foul of the security police. ‘Sometimes.’ said Mr Woods. ‘you just think you‘re in “safe old Surbiton" and then you get a phone call like that . . .'
In a sense the past ten years of Donald Woods‘s life have been spent jogging people‘s memories about South Africa. Banned from editing his newspaper. the East London Daily Dispatch. following the way he relentlessly campaigned to expose the truth behind Biko‘s death. he fled the country at the end of 1977 disguised as a Catholic priest. Tucked under his arm was a copy of the manuscript of his biography of Biko. and since then he has never let
up in the fight against the racist regime in Pretoria.
His message — and Biko‘s — is shortly to be heard now being told to milions. contained in Attenborough‘s film based on the story ofthe friendship between his family and that of the charismatic leader of the Black Consciousness movement. Biko — articulate.
Never let up fight
persuasive and a wily opponent of apartheid — died at the hands of the police on 13 September 1977. but even after ten years his death is still an indelible stain on the South African Government‘s attempts to whitewash the truth about the lengths they will go to to stamp out opposition.
‘His death got more publicity throughout the world than any other death in detention.‘ said Mr Woods. ‘That is one of the reasons why it is so important. It constitutes pressure on them. They have accepted it is something they are not going to get over. They were obviously quite horrified that Biko had been killed. This was done by thugs down in Port Elizabeth. The usual ploy when people are killed in those circumstances is to fudge the issue and basically back up the thugs. On this occasion it was not so easy because the international press picked it up.‘
However. the film. which was produced and directed by Richard Attenborough with financial backing from Universal Studios. has come under fire for glamorising its subject and containing inaccuracies. and Mr Woods is a little rueful that they did not manage to fulfil their original intention to get a black South African actor to play Biko. In the end they picked American Denzel Washington. who has appeared in The Soldier's Story and St Elsewhere. and Kevin Kline plays Donald Woods.
However. Attenborough‘s film of Gandhi managed to survive the ruckus over the casting of Ben Kingsley rather than an Indian. ‘Let it speak for itself when it is released.‘ said Mr Woods. ‘It is controversial — if people misunderstand it.‘ When I spoke to Donald Woods they were still searching for a title for the film. which spans the period from the
‘It is controversial‘
brutal police raid on Seweto in 1975 to Mr Woods‘s escape on New Year‘s Eve 1977 — and which he emphasises is about apartheid rather than just Biko.
Whatever is said about the film. it should not be forgotten that Mr Woods is no comfortable. armchair critic ofapartheid. When he was a banned person he suffered a number of attacks on his family. including the horrific occasion when two security policemen intercepted a T-shirt sent to his five year-old daughter and sprayed it with a chemical that burnt her eyes and stained her skin. One of his only regrets is that he did not get involved in black politics sooner.
‘I would go in and write the editorial and then go and play golf. It stopped short of personal involvement. You reach a stage where you cannot just write about the things and forget about them. You sort ofdrift into it.‘
But however much he became involved with Biko and the other leading figures ofthe Black Consciousness movement. Mr Woods still retained something of the white South African in him. which he illustrates with a story he tells against himself. Shortly after arriving in England. he was living in Islington and went to play golf at a Surrey course with an Australian neighbour.
‘I teed up on the first tee and to my astonishment I hit one right down the middle. so I started walking after it. He said: ‘Who is going to carry your bag'.’ ()h. the great anti-
Chose British citizenship
apartheid man — can't play golf without a black caddy!‘ To a white South African it is part of your swing. You hit the ball and you walk. This would not go down too well at the annual i‘xnti-Apartheid conference! I remember blushing as I stood on a fairly chilly Surrey afternoon thinking “Oh shit.”
Mr Woods now shares his Surbiton home with his wife Wendy and their five children. and divides his time between writing books — his latest project is a book of the making of the film — journalism. and doing lecture tours. I Ie plays chess for his local club. admits to a fondness for poker and blackjack and. like most of his fellow countrymen is sports mad.
A message to millions When he had the choice of citizenship ofthe United States or Britain. he chose here. explaining to the Americans: ‘Americans don't play rugby and cricket very much.‘
But most of all. perhaps. he enjoys being a thorn in I’retoria‘s side. the turbulent journalist they could not get rid of. ‘If they had had any sense they would have left me alone. because I had 180.000 readers every morning. which is not very earth-shattering. and once a week I wrote a column that reached a few million. That's all.‘ Thanks to the way they forced him to leave the country — by foot and by car to Lesotho. and then by plane to Lusaka — he now has a far bigger audience. ‘I remember doing a broadcast in three minutes in America which had a listenership of forty-six million people. I think it was dumb of them (the South African Government). and I‘ve tried to make use ofit.‘
South African Dispatches. a collection of Donald Woods" original South African journalism is published by Penguin at£3. 95 as is his biography of Steve Biko.
[Write What I Like. Steven Biko's collected writings 1969—1972. is also published by Penguin atLi. 95.
The List 8 — 21 January 198811