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Donald Woods Remembered

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

This white man in his 60s received a tribal name in South Africa – Zweliyanyikima – and even those of us who found it difficult to pronounce thought it was stunningly fitting.

"The one that shakes the earth" is what it means and Donald Woods, my colleague and friend who died last Sunday (August 19) at 67 after a two-year fight with cancer, did just that – using his words, his wit and his standing as a journalist to battle apartheid in his native South Africa.

If the world remembers the name of Steve Biko, the black anti-apartheid activist who was beaten to death by South African police in the late '70s, it is due in part to Donald, who vowed he would not let the world forget his friend, and who risked imprisonment – and much worse – to keep Biko's memory and cause alive.

"We shall remember him as a personal friend who gave selflessly of himself to advance the cause of his country," said former president Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first post-apartheid leader.

True enough, but I also will remember Donald Woods as a guy with a wonderful cigarette baritone, who loved margaritas, cricket, and ultimately baseball. He also was the man who led my wife Judy and me to a nearly decade-long connection, volunteer-photographing in Washington for Medical Education for South African Blacks (MESAB) – the largest source of private funding for students of color preparing for health care careers in South Africa. Through Donald we did our own small part for the cause, with a pair of Nikons.

I first met Woods more than 20 years ago, in 1978, shortly after he fled his homeland, having been banned by his government and placed under house arrest. Woods, a founder and editor of the Daily Dispatch in the South African coastal city of East London, had been a regular thorn in the side of that country's apartheid hierarchy, and an equally astringent critic of separatist black nationalism. It was a gradual, at first guarded, friendship that grew between Woods and the fiery Biko, but it was a friendship that was forged to last. Donald's final visit to post-apartheid South Africa was last spring, to attend the wedding of Biko's son.

Donald and I were Nieman Fellows together, in the class of '79, though Donald's time at Harvard was sporadic. Through the inspired intercession of then-Nieman curator Jim Thomson, Woods was granted one of the coveted spots as an international Nieman Fellow and he used his Nieman year to travel the country denouncing apartheid and raising the consciousness of a whole generation of Americans.

In between, Donald relished the company of his fellow journalists, even though most of us were a good 10 to 15 years younger than he was. He enjoyed margaritas, and whenever he was in town, Donald usually would find time to join a few of us at a local bar off Harvard Square and pass an evening over salt-rimmed glasses. The crowd back then would change, but usually included Bob Porterfield of the Anchorage Daily News, Katherine Harting of ABC News, Michael McDowell of the Belfast Telegraph, Peggy Simpson of the AP, Margaret Engel of the Des Moines Register – and Frank Van Riper, then of the New York Daily News.

I'd like to say our conversations were deep, befitting our exalted status as Niemans. In fact, Donald knew, and arguably needed, the therapy of laughter. Often we talked sports. He loved cricket; I loved baseball. One evening, we used a lot of bar napkins, diagramming our games for each another.

Donald also could play the piano and I can recall at least one raucous party in the faculty club in which he led us in song through much of a late evening.

Woods and his family lived in London throughout his exile and remained there even when he was free to return. Our contacts were sporadic after our Nieman year, but a dozen or so years ago, we renewed our contact when Donald came to Washington on a speaking tour that included an appearance at a predominately black church in D.C. Judy and I photographed that appearance and at a reception afterward got to know the folks from MESAB. It wasn't long before we were MESAB's Washington photographers. (We have photographed a lot of famous people over the past 20 years, but I never will forget the grace and good humor of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, at one of MESAB's annual dinners.)

Before that D.C. appearance in church, I really hadn't experienced much of Donald as a public speaker. I knew he could write like hell, having read his angry, eloquent biography, Biko (PeterSmith Pub.). But in fact, during our Nieman year, since most of his formal speechmaking was out of town, I heard Donald speak publicly at Harvard only once. He was not a stentorian speaker, but he was an eloquent one, and you sensed beneath the informal, British-inflected words, a steel determination, and a towering outrage. To those who praised his courage – first for denouncing apartheid in print, then for raising the alarm over his friend Biko's death, and finally for fleeing his country under the noses of his police guards (disguised as a priest of all things) – Donald would argue that it was not courage but indignation that drove him.

Courage or indignation, it took guts to do what he did. My personal heroes include people who have fought for right at the risk of everything – civil rights workers in the '60s; members of the anti-Nazi resistance during World War II. Were he alive now and looking over my shoulder I know Donald would chide me for even mentioning him with these brave people. But, as one newsie to another, I'd tell him to go write his own column; he's where he belongs.

You've earned your rest, "one that shakes the earth."

For information about Medical Education for South African Blacks, go to www.mesab.org.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

Donald Woods, left, and Nieman Foundation curator Jim Thomson, center, after a vigorous game of catch on the lawn of Harvard's Walter Lippmann House on graduation day, 1979. At right is Nieman Fellow Michael McDowell, then of the Belfast Telegraph.

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