The editor of the Daily Dispatch, Donald Woods, had become increasingly concerned about the future of South Africa – more and more he left the day-to-day running of the newspaper to his staff, as he became a nationally known personality through his fierce opposition to apartheid.
His friendship with Steve Biko was still developing. The day that Biko’s death in detention was announced on September 13 1977, was a watershed day for him, as well as for all South Africa.
Woods was in a subdued and sad mood. He came to me in my office and said what a pity it was that we could not run full colour on page one of the next day’s paper.
The Daily Dispatch was then committed to a 10-day before publication deadline for colour, which was pre-printed on the Halley-Aller press at Demaprint on the West Bank, re- reeled, and then taken to the Daily Dispatch for use on the respective days.
I said that it was possible to have colour the next day as no full colour advertisements had been booked. And, in fact, we had an excellent colour portrait of Steve Biko by the Dispatch cartoonist at the time, Don Kenyon.
All that was required was the assent and co-operation of Dema- print, who would have to work flat out to print the colour and get it to the Daily Dispatch by deadline.
The managing director of Demaprint, John Horlor, readily agreed, and the three of us planned the design of the front page by working through lunchtime in a private house. There was to be one news headline: “Biko dies in detention” – but after that Donald’s ideas became startling.
He wanted a big colour picture of Biko and a black mourning border, and much white space, but with big headline tributes proclaiming the death: “We salute a hero of the nation” in English on one side of the page and the same in Xhosa (“Sikhahlela Indoda Yamadoda”) on the other.
This seemed to depart from journalistic objectivity in the presentation of news, and I said so. I said I thought he was “being too political”.
Donald insisted on the prerogative of the editor, and we then got on with the business of being design technicians. What was correct was his reading of the Steve Biko death.
In his heart, his personal affection for Biko aside, he knew instinctively – probably more than anyone else in the country – what a profound effect Biko’s death was to have on South Africa, its future, and its deteriorating relations with the rest of the world.
The editor of another major South African daily newspaper confessed to me months later that his publication had totally underestimated the tragic event, and its consequences for South Africa.
In the same issue, September 14 1977, the Daily Dispatch published Woods’ moving tribute to Steve Biko. This was a remarkable article, full of insight, courage and sadness at the loss of a young and extraordinary man who could have been so instrumental in helping South Africa and all its residents. As Woods so often pointed out, he was never an enemy of anyone, never a racist.
On September 16 1977, the Daily Dispatch published a leader strongly criticising the then minister of justice, Jimmy Kruger. Later that day Woods made a speech to 1000 people at the University of Cape Town in which he again attacked the government and called Kruger “a total disaster”.
The blow fell on October 19 1977. He was served with a five-year banning order under the Internal Security Act at Johannesburg airport shortly before he was to fly to the United States to meet (among others) the Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance.
The Dispatch had a two-word headline on October 20 1977: “Editor banned” and there was no need to say who that editor was.
The editorial offices of the Daily Dispatch were in turmoil when news of the banning came through around five in the evening. The deputy editor George Farr, was away at the time. There were people running around like headless chickens. But we simmered down, called a conference, listed reports that had to be done, and throttled back to procedure.
When Farr returned later that evening, he found a group of disciplined journalists getting on with the business of reporting a unique story in the history of the Daily Dispatch – the banning of its own editor. It became world news.
A study of the 1977 files clearly indicates Woods’s true friends and supporters as he and his family endured the few months of tension, banning and harassment.
There were articles and statements of support by the acting editor Farr (later editor), Joe Yazbek, Donald Card, and the managing director of the Daily Dispatch, Terry Briceland.
In November of that year, the five-year-old Mary Woods had to receive medical treatment when she wore a T-shirt sent to the house and found to be impregnated with acid-based skin irritant. It was later established that security police were tampering with Woods’s mail, though it was never revealed who had impregnated the T-shirt, which had been sent by a ‘well-wisher’.
I played chess with Donald in his home during his period of banning, both of us sticking to the absurd regulation that he could see only one person at a time. One day, unusually subdued, he asked me to walk with him in the garden. He was convinced his home was bugged. He told me in the sunshine of a perfect day that he was going to leave South Africa. I asked him no questions. I did not want to compromise or embarrass him, and did not want to be party to any information, in case his leaving was aborted. The fewer who knew, the better his chances.
He said he felt he had to tell me that he was going because he had been instrumental in bringing me and my family to South Africa. His advice was that we should consider leaving the country. I thanked him and said that whatever happened, there would be no recriminations; we had after all, made our own decisions to come to South Africa.
On New Year’s Day, 1987, I had a phone call from the news editor of the Sunday Times in Johannesburg, Hans Strydom, saying he had heard a rumour that Donald Woods was in Maseru, Lesotho. There was no reply to his home telephone number, Strydom said. I went along to the house in Chamberlain Road in Vincent. There was no sign of Donald, his wife or his children.
There was a note, explaining that that they had decided to seek refuge in Lesotho. From there they flew to uncertain refuge in Britain.
Later Woods wrote a personal letter of thanks to every member of the editorial staff who had worked with him during those tumultuous years.
Over the years there have been books, lectures, the film Cry Freedom and inevitable controversy that has so often accompanied a man who was essentially gentle and compassionate, but his legacy lives in the Daily Dispatch.
Glyn Williams , now resident in Australia, is a former editor of the Daily Dispatch