Allister Sparks is the former editor of the Rand Daily Mail, once the leading voice of antiapartheid sentiment in South Africa. After years of government pressure, the newspaper was shut down by its publisher in 1985. Sparks is in this country writing a book to be titled "The Mind of South Africa."
It was two days before Christmas 1977 when I last saw Donald Woods in South Africa. His friend Steve Biko had been dead three months, and the security police responsible had been exonerated. Donald himself was under a government banning order, which denied him the right to work as a journalist and confined him to virtual house arrest.
Now, on the lawn outside his home, he told me of his plan to flee South Africa and showed me a box containing a manuscript he had written about Biko and the horrible way he died.
"I'm taking this with me," he said. "I'm going to get it published. Allister, they killed him -- and they're not going to get away with it."
Donald paid the first installment on that promise with worldwide publication of that book. He paid another in 1980 with publication of his autobiography, "Asking for Trouble," which again focused world attention on the brutality of apartheid and the South African security system. There have been many smaller payments since, made with lecture tours and television appearances.
Now comes the big one. "Cry Freedom," the epic film based on Donald's books, is the most powerfully dramatized indictment of the apartheid regime ever to be projected to mass audiences. It will have an enormous impact on the attitudes of millions of people around the globe toward a regime they are already disposed to despise. Pretoria is going to hate every foot and every minute of it.
If there is a flaw in the film, it is that the Donald Woods I have known for 30 years is a much more ebullient and witty fellow than the rather heavily serious white South African editor played by Kevin Kline. Those were serious times,of course, in a deadly serious country, and there is no doubt that the ghastly death of his friend at the hands of the police and his own family's encounters with their viciousness bit into Donald's soul and took some of the joviality out of him.
I saw that happen in the weeks between Biko's death and Donald's flight from the country. But for the film to have missed the essential sparkle of the man is to have missed something important about Woods himself and about South Africa. It is that resilience of the human spirit, the indestructible vitality of the place, that continues to characterize South Africa, even in its darkest moments.
It is a quality that lives on in the vibrant energy of Mamphela Ramphele, Biko's girlfriend and the mother of his child, who survived the agony of his death and her own banishment to a desolate tribal area to transform the place into a wonderful medical, educational and self-help center.
It is there in the vivid smile and vivacious personality of Winnie Mandela, who has been able to spend a total of only four months living with her husband, imprisoned African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, in the 30 years they have been married.
It is there in Moika and Moya Sisulu, aged 7 and 4, two bright and happy kids whose journalist father Zwelakhe has been in prison without charges for a year, whose grandfather has served 24 years of a life sentence, whose grandmother has known nothing but imprisonment, banning orders, police raids, and the arrest, jailing and exiling of members of her family since she was a young woman.
In his own white way Donald Woods epitomized that spirit in the midst of a grim and ugly conflict. He brought a lively irreverence to a dull newspaper in a suffocatingly conservative town when he became editor of the East London Daily Dispatch at the age of 31. For 12 years he took the place by the ears and shook it up. They liked him -- you can't help liking Donald -- but they were glad when he left. It is a dull town with a dull paper once again.
The style of his editorship was set in the first week. The secretary of the East London Golf Club telephoned to inform him that by long tradition the editor of the Dispatch was accorded honorary membership in the club, and that while his predecessor had not taken advantage of this during the 25 years he had occupied the editorial chair the committee was pleased to hear that Donald was a golfer. "Thank you," Donald replied. "Thank you very much. But I thought your club didn't accept Jews as members."
"Mr. Woods," spluttered the embarrassed secretary. "You're not a Jew, are you?"
"No," answered Donald, who is a staunch Catholic. "But I'm not about to join a club that won't accept them." Typically, Donald was not content with that riposte; subtlety and understatement have never been his strong suits. He wrote about it in the Dispatch.
The result was an invitation from the local Jewish club to join them. Donald accepted, and he was invited to play a welcoming round with some members. The last hole at the club requires a drive across a water hazard. All made the fairway safely, but as the others set off along a path that leads around the hazard, Donald struck out directly toward it. "This way, Mr. Woods," the club captain called in surprise as he watched Donald heading for the water. With all the spontaneity of a scripted Bob Hope gag, Donald paused in his stride and called back: "Gentlemen, you forget, I'm a Christian!"
He was often an exasperating friend in those days. He once stayed in my home during a six-month session of the Cape Town Parliament when we were both political reporters. I would call my home sometimes to have the phone answered by a Chinese laundryman, an Indian fruit vendor, a Cape Colored fisherman, or -- a favorite of Donald's -- an obtuse and heavily accented Afrikaner policeman. Once I called his bluff and yelled a torrent of abuse down the line, only to find that I had in fact dialed a wrong number.
The vaudeville talent is real. Donald earned a living for a time playing the piano in a London bar. He can mix tunes, Victor Borge-style, into a musical burlesque. He once whiled away time during a dull parliamentary debate writing the lyrics for a political satire, sung to the music of "My Fair Lady," which he called "My Dark Lady." One line I recall ran "... as I crawl through the kraal where you live." A Johannesburg revue theater performed part of it.
It was an engaging mixture, this concerned liberal tucked inside a playful personality. Everybody liked him, from the dour prime minister, John Vorster -- who devised South Africa's monstrous security laws and with whom Donald occasionally played chess -- to the dull members of the United Party opposition and the brighter liberals of the Progressive Party.
He was a favorite, particularly, among the blacks of his own eastern Cape Province region where he grew up because he could speak their tongue-twisting Xhosa language, knew their folklore and, in a sense, was one of them.
It was Donald's dream at one time that he might be able to use his omnivorous popularity and talent for communication to play the role of a reconciliator in South Africa. He started a syndicated column to build a national image, and worked at improving his personal relationships with government ministers and key power brokers in the security establishment -- including Jimmy Kruger, the minister of justice, who was ultimately responsible for what happened to Steve Biko.
But gradually, from about 1975 onward, one sensed a change beginning to come over him. Nothing dramatic, but he talked more and more about the remarkable young black man he had become friendly with and how this was causing him to rethink many of his old mainstream liberal ideas. He was becoming more thoughtful, if not yet more serious. Then came the news of Biko's death in detention in September 1977. Kruger issued a statement saying he had died of a hunger strike.
I was then editor of the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg, and I telephoned Donald immediately. There was pure fury on the end of the line. There was no way, he insisted, that Biko would have committed suicide or starved himself to death. He was too strong-minded for that.
"The bastards have killed him," Donald raged. "They'll pay for this!" With that, he virtually abandoned his editorial chair and began a series of speaking engagements around the country, publicly accusing the security police of killing the young black consciousness leader.
For my part, I put a smart investigative reporter on the story to see what she could find out about the autopsies that were sure to follow. Official security on the case was tight, but it was not long before the reporter learned that Biko had died of brain damage, not a hunger strike as Kruger had said.
The Rand Daily Mail published the story, the first public disclosure of South Africa's most grotesque act of official violence. Kruger was incensed. We had broken no law but he demanded an instant hearing of the Press Council, a "self-disciplinary" body for hearing complaints against the press that the newspaper publishers had set up in an effort to appease the government and so ward off threatened press-control legislation.
The rules of the council allowed a paper seven days to prepare its case, but I came under intense pressure from the publishers -- including my own -- to accede to Kruger's demand for a hearing that very day. Otherwise, I was told, my refusal might be used as a pretext for introducing the threatened press law. With great reluctance, I eventually agreed, and the hearing took place that night.
I knew it would be a star chamber show, and it was. Kruger did not bother to attend the hearing, and I refused to disclose the identity of our vulnerable informants. At 1 a.m., the chairman of the council, retired Appeal Court Judge Oscar Galgut, delivered a verdict of historic iniquity, "severely reprimanding" the Rand Daily Mail for misreporting the facts and for falsely accusing the minister of making a misstatement about the cause of Biko's death.
All this incensed Donald still further, and his accusations of official murder became more forthright. He scheduled a trip abroad to carry his campaign of exposure to a wider audience, and he stopped by my office on his way to Johannesburg airport. An hour later, his wife Wendy phoned from East London to say he had been halted at the airport and served with a banning order. That meant he could no longer work at the paper, he could not write anything, he could not be in the company of more than one other person at a time, and he could not move beyond the city limits of dreary East London. Literally, it meant he would have to sit at home, idle and almost alone.
I knew many political activists who were enduring this kind of restriction, but I knew also that for someone of Donald's gregarious nature it would be torture. Yet his innate good humor did not desert him even in this moment of extremis. As he recounted later, he joked, yarned and argued with the security policemen who drove him at high speed for 700 miles through the night back from Johannesburg to East London. They drove in relays, and when the first crew handed him over at the Cape provincial border at 3 in the morning they bade a friendly farewell to their passenger.
"I have a message for you to take back to your boss, Jimmy Kruger," Donald told them with a grin. "Ja, what is it?" they inquired, smiling. "Tell him," said Donald, breaking into Afrikaans for added effect, "to remember the law of Transvaal." The policemen roared with laughter. They thought it very funny coming from this English editor, for the law of Transvaal is a vulgar little couplet of pioneer provenance that goes: "Kak en betaal Is die wet van Transvaal." It was the Boer frontiersmen's latrine-language vow of retribution against those who did them dirt.
The policemen should not have laughed. They misread the steely intentions of this genial man. For Donald was making a vow of retribution on behalf of his murdered friend and, now that he was banned, on his own behalf as well.
In the months that followed, it emerged at the notorious inquest into Biko's death that he had suffered a terrible blow to the head during his long interrogation sessions; that he had sunk into a coma that the brutes in charge of him ascribed to malingering, and so left him lying manacled and naked on a mat soaked in his own urine while police medics glossed over his deteriorating condition; that eventually there was a panic and he was loaded, still naked, in the back of a jeep and driven hundreds of miles from a Cape Province jail to the central state prison in Pretoria, where he arrived with no reports on his condition and where he died with no further medical attention.
The police said he had suddenly gone berserk while being questioned and had crashed his head against a wall. The state-appointed magistrate who conducted the inquest accepted that story, and in a one-sentence verdict found that no living person was to blame. No one believed it, not even the government's most ardent supporters, but it put an end to the required judicial proceedings.
Wendy Woods traveled to Pretoria for the inquest and attended the hearings each day. She made extensive notes and took these, together with the near-verbatim reports in the Rand Daily Mail, back to East London, to Donald, who was working secretly on his manuscript.
When I visited his prison-home that Christmas season, I found him in a fever of tension and excitement. He led me out into the garden to evade any bugs the security police might have planted in the house, and as we strode about the lawn he told me he had decided to flee the country.
I was appalled. To me, Donald was so essentially South African, so in tune with all the country's people and their ways, with their languages and accents and foibles, with the good and the bad in them, that I could not imagine so indigenous a creature surviving in any exile environment.
I tried to persuade him not to go. I reminded him of the role of racial reconciliator he had always envisioned for himself. I told him I did not believe the banning order would be left in force for very long: perhaps two years. Just sit it out. Don't do something so irrevocable that you may regret forever. But he was adamant:
"Allister, they killed him -- and they're not going to get away with it." Kak en betaal!