Biography of Jailbreaker South African Donald Woods Part 1

About the South African jailbreaker Donald Woods, biography and history of the man who escaped from numerous prisons.


Donald Woods

A fifth-generation South African, Donald Woods became editor of the East London Daily Dispatch at age 31 and held the position for 12 years. (The South African city of East London is about 150 mi. northeast of Port Elizabeth.) Initially his views were those of a white liberal. He strongly opposed, in his widely read editorials, the Black Consciousness Movement founded by Stephen Biko, urging his black readers not to support an activist group that appeared to advocate racism in reverse. Equally, he tried to convince blacks that not all whites were racist. Biko, aware that the Dispatch articles were stunting BCM growth, arranged a private meeting with the journalist to explain his nationalist philosophy. Biko's arguments were so persuasive that the newspaperman soon joined him in confronting the government's segregationalist policy of apartheid. This radical stance angered Prime Minister Vorster, and Woods was totally ostracized by his fellow whites as a direct result of his new alliance.

With Biko's death under suspicious circumstances on Sept. 12, 1977, while in the Pretoria jail, Woods began a highly visible campaign throughout the Union of South Africa, making speeches that demanded a full inquest and criticizing the Union's police-state tactics. Allegedly Biko had been savagely beaten by the police in Port Elizabeth, then transported--naked, unconscious, and shackled--600 mi. by Land Rover to the Pretoria jail, where he had died just after arrival. Woods's angry denunciations were silenced one month later. He was "banned" by government decree for five years, an order that effectively ended his journalistic career in South Africa. Under the terms of the ban, Woods was not allowed to write, publish, or be quoted. He could not attend social functions and he was prohibited from talking to, or even being in the presence of, more than one person at a time. The order magnanimously made an exception for his wife, Wendy, and their five children, considering them to be all "one person." Woods's home and car were bugged openly and placed under 24-hour surveillance. To complete the humiliation, the East London security-police chief, Colonel van der Merwe, curtly informed him that he could expect unannounced breakins at any time of the day or night, should someone believe the conditions of the ban were being violated.

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