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SA editor’s escape from apartheid, 30 years on

Disguised as an Irish priest and taking advantage of the New Year festivities, Donald Woods launched a dramatic escape 30 years ago to expose one of South Africa’s most notorious apartheid crimes.

As the country prepared to ring in the new year, the white liberal editor managed to evade house arrest and cross over into the tiny kingdom of Lesotho in an act of daring later made famous in the movie Cry Freedom.

Clutching his prized cargo, the manuscript of a book exposing government atrocities, including the killing of black consciousness movement leader Steve Biko, Woods set out into the pouring rain to cross the border.

Bruce Haigh, an Australian diplomat in South Africa who helped Woods slip out of the country, recalls the escape sparked by the death of Biko, which the whites-only government claimed was due to a hunger strike.

Woods had managed to obtain photographs of Biko’s body, which Haigh said provided ”damning evidence” that Biko had in fact been beaten to death.

”These were obviously photographs that the world should see and it was decided they should go into the book that Donald was writing,” Haigh told Agence France-Presse from Australia.

”The idea of Donald getting out was that the book would be published and he would be available to talk to various groups about the contents of that book, but also what was about going on in South Africa.”

Woods, who died of cancer in 2001, was driven by what fellow journalist Allister Sparks termed a ”spirit of vengeance against the people who killed the man he admired so much”.

Sparks was the editor of one of the only other liberal papers of the time, the Rand Daily Mail, and calls his old counterpart at the East London-based Daily Dispatch as ”my oldest and closest friend”.

Sparks recalls how Woods decided to meet Biko, whose black consciousness movement started in 1969 to fill a vacuum after the African National Congress was banned, on the recommendation of some of his black reporters.

”That meeting with Biko had a very profound effect on Donald’s whole political outlook. He was hugely impressed.”

Biko’s death in police custody in September 1977 outraged Woods.

”Normally he was a very entertaining, witty, light-hearted person. After Biko’s killing he became hugely angry. He embarked on a crusade of public speaking to denounce this murder.”

Woods planned to travel overseas but was arrested at the airport and served with a five-year banning order.

Subjected to house arrest, it then became clear to Woods that his family was being targeted when a T-shirt laced with acid was posted to their home, badly injuring his five-year-old daughter when she tried it on.

As Woods’s life became increasingly endangered, Haigh recalls driving down to East London to discuss the possibility of the escape.

Woods arranged with a former security police officer to take him to the Lesotho border, while Haigh would wait on the other side to pick him up.

”It was important to have diplomatic number plates. South Africa’s police were quite adept at conducting cross-border hot-pursuit operations.”

”Donald Card [the former police officer] came up with a very, very elaborate plan that involved two cars, walkie-talkie radios between the cars …”

Woods borrowed the passport of a local Irish Catholic priest, whose guise he adopted and set off on his journey on December 31 1977.

”Because on New Year’s Eve, security police, everybody, will have lowered their guard and were off doing other things,” recalled Haigh.

As Card and Woods reached the tiny mountain kingdom their plan was nearly scuppered as his wife Wendy and their five children were trapped on the other side of the flooded Telle River.

A Lesotho government official managed to go and fetch them, and the family was later flown to Botswana, which posed another risk as the plane had to cross South African territory and there were fears it would be shot down.

The plan, however, went off smoothly and Woods and his family landed in London where they were granted political asylum.

Speaking on his arrival at Gatwick airport, Woods told reporters: ”I could no longer function there as a journalist.

”I was no longer able to oppose the government, as I have been doing for many years, within the limits of the laws, which were already highly restrictive.”

Woods then began a vigorous campaign against the apartheid regime, meeting then-US president Jimmy Carter and addressing the United Nations Security Council — the first private citizen to do so.

Haigh said Woods’s role in the downfall of apartheid was ”hugely instrumental”.

”South Africans wanted to have black heroes and needed to have black heroes, yet Donald was able to influence at a hugely senior level these sorts of outcomes.” — Sapa-AFP

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Fran Blandy
Fran Blandy
AFP's deputy bureau chief for East Africa, based in Nairobi, Previously correspondent in Paris, Dakar and Johannesburg.

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