Biography of Jailbreaker South African Donald Woods Part 2

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


Donald Woods

Ten days after the decree took effect, Woods secretly began writing a biography of Stephen Biko and the cause he had died for. Titled The Indictment, the 175,000-word manuscript, finished in two months, was smuggled out of South Africa in sections by friends who risked their own freedom to do so. Because the completed book expressed opinions that made Woods liable to charges of treason under the Terrorism Act and therefore subject to the death penalty, he realized that he and his entire family would have to leave South Africa before its publication in England.

The attempt to escape from the Pretoria regime's jurisdiction was originally planned for May 1978, but two unforeseen events caused Woods to move up the date. First, a national election overwhelmingly reaffirmed approval by white voters of the apartheid policy, dashing his hopes that the Vorster administration might ease its inflexible position. Second, his five-year-old daughter, Mary, became the innocent victim of the continual harassment that had plagued the family. The child had been given a T-shirt with a likeness of the dead Biko on it. As she pulled the garment over her head, she screamed in agony, instantly burned by a chemical that had been sprayed inside the shirt. Later analysis showed that the corrosive agent was Ninhydrin, an acid-based powder used by the police to bring out fingerprint traces. To prevent further attacks on his family, Woods decided to escape from South Africa on Dec. 31, 1977, five months earlier than originally planned. He resolved to flee northward by car to reach the independent kingdom of Lesotho, a land totally surrounded by the Union of South Africa but with charter flights to Botswana, Zambia, and other African countries.

During November and December, Woods and his wife made their final preparations. He acquired a fake passport, one good enough to pass a quick scrutiny by upcountry officials. He bought black hair dye, a false mustache, and some white cloth to make a Catholic priest's Roman collar. By chance, in laying out the escape route, Woods had picked a border crossing that was just a few miles away from an obscure Catholic mission. He reasoned that--disguised as a priest--he could claim to be headed for St. Theresa's Mission, which was nearby, if stopped for questioning. Wendy quietly made multiple visits to their East London bank, withdrawing small sums each time until she had amassed a miserly 800 rands (approximately $800 in U.S. money). To have taken more of their life savings might have aroused suspicion. Simultaneously, Wendy and the children rehearsed their own roles. They were to go in the family car to visit Wendy's parents at Umtata and wait there for a phone call from Woods at precisely 10:00 A.M. If he verified that he was safe in Lesotho, they were to dash for the border and, posing as tourists, cross over for their reunion at Maseru, the capital.

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