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Tue, 09.08.2009

Donald Woods, South African Journalist born

The birth of Donald Woods in 1934 is marked on this date. He was a white-South African journalist and activist.

Woods, from Transkei in remote South Africa, spoke English and Xhosa. A fifth-generation South African, he grew up the way most whites of his generation did, as a believer in apartheid.  In 1950, after hearing a parliamentary debate, his conservative views changed because of what he called “the great obscene lie of apartheid.” He was a law student, but he later turned to journalism.

In the mid-1970s, he failed to persuade government officials to talk to Stephen Biko, a Black South African activist.  Instead, security police arrested Biko in September 1977. Biko (30 years old) was beaten unconscious and driven naked in chains about 700 miles to the prison, where he died.  Woods was outraged, and his crusade after that death led to his being "banned" for five years, which confined him to his home and prohibited him from writing or being in the company of more than one other person.  Shots were fired at his house. He eventually fled with his family to London.

Woods was portrayed in the 1987 film "Cry Freedom." Directed by Richard Attenborough, the film starred Kevin Kline as Woods and Denzel Washington as "Black Consciousness" movement leader Steve Biko. As editor of a 30,000-circulation newspaper in coastal East London, South Africa, Woods' attacks against apartheid and his country's now-defunct system of racial segregation made him the nation's most famous charismatic and controversial journalist.

Woods lived long enough to return to his homeland as an honored man after apartheid fell. Donald Woods died in London after a long fight with cancer on August 19, 2001. He was 67.

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