Donald Woods and the Death of Activist Steve Biko

Editor Helps Expose Truth

Anti-Apartheid Demonstrators, Trafalgar Square, London, 1977
Demonstrators demand a neutral inquiry into the death of Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness leader, who died in police custody. Hulton Deutsch/Getty Images

Donald Woods (born December 15, 1933, died August 19, 2001) was a South African anti-apartheid activist and journalist. His coverage of Steve Biko's death in custody led to his exile from South Africa. His books exposed case and were the basis of the movie, "Cry Freedom."

Early Life

Woods was born in Hobeni, Transkei, South Africa. He was descended from five generations of white settlers. While studying law at the University of Cape Town, he became active in the anti-apartheid Federal Party.

He worked as a journalist for newspapers in the United Kingdom before returning to South Africa to report for the Daily Dispatch. He became the editor-in-chief in 1965 for the paper that had an anti-apartheid editorial stance and a racially integrated editorial staff.

Uncovering the Truth About the Death of Steve Biko

When the South African black consciousness leader Steve Biko died in police custody in September 1977, journalist Donald Woods was at the forefront of the campaign to get the truth revealed about his death. At first, the police claimed that Biko had died as the result of a hunger strike. The inquest showed that he'd died of brain injuries received while in custody and that he'd been kept naked and in chains for a prolonged period before his death. They ruled held that Biko had died "as a result of injuries received after a scuffle with members of the security police in Port Elizabeth." But why Biko was in jail in Pretoria when he died and the events attending his death weren't explained satisfactorily.

Woods Accuses the Government over Biko's Death

Woods used his position as editor of the Daily Dispatch newspaper to attack the Nationalist government over Biko's death. This description by Woods of Biko reveals why he felt so strongly about this particular death, one of many under the apartheid regime's security forces: "This was a new breed of South African – the Black Consciousness breed – and I knew immediately that a movement that produced the sort of personality now confronting me had qualities that blacks had been needing in South Africa for three hundred years."

In his biography Biko Woods describes the security policemen testifying at the inquest: "These men displayed symptoms of extreme insularity. They are people whose upbringing has impressed upon them the divine right to retain power, and in that sense, they are innocent men -- incapable of thinking or acting differently. On top of that, they have gravitated to an occupation that has given them all the scope they need to express their rigid personalities. They have been protected for years by laws of the country. They have been able to carry out all their imaginative torture practices quite undisturbed in cells and rooms all over the country, with tacit official sanction, and they have been given tremendous status by the government as the men who 'protect the State from subversion'."

Woods Is Banned and Escapes to Exile

Woods was hounded by the police and then banned, which meant he was not to leave his East London home, nor could he continue to work. After a child's t-shirt with a photo of Steve Biko on it posted to him was found to have been impregnated with acid, Woods began to fear for the safety of his family. He "stuck on a stage moustache and dyed my grey hair black and then climbed over the back fence," to escape to Lesotho.

He hitchhiked some 300 miles and swam across the flooded Tele River to get there. His family joined him, and from there they went to Britain, where they were granted political asylum.

In exile, he wrote several books and continued campaigning against apartheid. The movie "Cry Freedom" was based his book "Biko." After 13 years in exile, Woods visited South Africa in August 1990, but never returned to live there.

Death

Woods died, aged 67, of cancer in a hospital near London, UK, on August 19, 2001.