As we’re about to ring in the New Year it seems an appropriate time to tell the story of Donald Woods’ dramatic escape from South Africa some thirty years ago. Woods, editor at the time of the East London-based newspaper, Daily Dispatch, had been issued with a five year banning order after being arrested at the airport trying to leave the country. After years of speaking out against the government through his work, Woods had finally realised that things in South Africa had reached the point where he could no longer function effectively as a journalist and felt it necessary to leave South Africa in order to carry on the fight from the other side. A generally convivial character, Woods had become angry and disillusioned after the murder of Steve Biko. At the request of the black journalists working under him Woods had met with Steve Biko before his death, and was particularly impressed by the man. After Biko’s death was passed off by the government as the accidental result of a hunger strike, Woods came into possession of a number of photographs of Biko’s body showing signs of torture. His outrage at the injustice of the situation made Woods even more vocal against the apartheid government, putting his and his family’s lives at risk.
Having being placed under house arrest, Woods decided that it was time to plan his escape – he intended to publish a book exposing the South African government’s atrocities, including the story and dramatic photos of Steve Biko, and wanted to be able to talk to people about the book, and also about what was about happening in South Africa.
A plan was made to cross the border into Lesotho, with the final destination for Woods and his family being England. Woods and his accomplices, who included an Australian diplomat, the then-editor of the Rand Daily Mail, Allister Sparks, and a former security police officer, decided to plan the great escape for New Year’s eve, as the security police would have lowered their guard, and the number of police on duty would also be less.
Woods borrowed the passport of a local Irish Catholic priest, disguised himself as a clergyman and set off on his journey on December 31st 1977. Aided by the ex-security officer, Woods made his way into Lesotho unhindered, but found that his wife and five children were stuck on the other side of the flooded Telle River. A Lesotho government official managed to fetch them and bring them to safety, and the family was later flown to Botswana, and eventually London where they were granted political asylum.
Himalaya House, the offices the Black Consciousness Movement headed up by Steve Biko, now forms part of Durban’s Liberation Heritage Route.