Humanities › History & Culture Biography of Donald Woods, South African Journalist Famous for Championing Anti-Apartheid Activist Steve Biko Share Flipboard Email Print William F. Campbell / The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images / Getty Images History & Culture African History Key Events American History African American History Ancient History and Culture Asian History European History Genealogy Inventions Latin American History Medieval & Renaissance History Military History The 20th Century Women's History View More By Alistair Boddy-Evans History Expert Postgraduate Certificate in Education, University College London M.S., Imperial College London B.S., Heriot-Watt University Alistair Boddy-Evans is a teacher and African history scholar with more than 25 years of experience. our editorial process Alistair Boddy-Evans Updated January 09, 2020 Donald Woods (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." Fast Facts: Donald Woods Known For: Editor of the South African newspaper Daily Dispatch who was an ally of fellow anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko.Born: December 15, 1933, in Hobeni, Transkei, South AfricaDied: August 19. 2001 in London, United KingdomAwards and Honors: Conscience-in-Media Award, from the American Society of Journalists and Authors, in 1978; World Association of Newspapers' Golden Pen of Freedom Award, in 1978Spouse: Wendy WoodsChildren: Jane, Dillon, Duncan, Gavin, Lindsay, Mary, and Lindsay 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 it 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 mustache 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 on 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.