The South African Gadfly

Review of Asking for Trouble by Donald Woods. Atheneum. 373 pages, $12.95.

Biko, Donald Woods' first book, was a powerful account of the life and violent death of a brilliant young black leader. Incidentally it was the story of a white South African journalist and his political education. As an indictment of government savagery Biko was damning, but it left many questions unanswered. How was Woods, an "orthodox white liberal" as he called himself, able to discard his preconceptions and enter into Biko's vision of South Africa? What was it about Woods that first made Biko seek him out, talk with him and eventually become his friend? Asking for Trouble provides the human context for the political drama of Biko, and demonstrates that Woods on Woods is as intriguing a subject as Woods on Biko.

The resourcefulness of Donald Woods emerges most strongly from this autobiography. Whether disarming two muggers with a phrase in the Xhosa language, finding a missing ship with a chartered plane, or escaping the country in dyed hair and a clerical collar, Woods displays a rare degree of adaptability. "Education consists mostly in what we have unlearned," said Mark Twain, in a quotation that begins the book. Woods has spent most of his life both learning and unlearning, beginning with his childhood in the Bomvanaland region of the Transkei, where he spoke Xhosa with his playmates, listened to tales of water-sprites and goblins, and watched Bomvana youths kill one another in Sunday axe-fights.

Educated in Kimberley and Cape Town, he returned to the Transkei to complete his law degree but grew quickly bored with the routine of rape, seduction, and axe-fight cases. Woods joined the East London Daily Dispatch as a cub reporter, but soon left the paper to run for Parliament as a Federal Party candidate. He lost. Woods returned to the Dispatch somewhat chastened but with the hope that journalism might turn out better for him than law or politics had done.

His varied background helped make Woods a versatile journalist. As a reporter for a British paper he toured the American South, noting a more open prejudice against blacks than he had seen at home, but a greater reluctance among whites to flout the government's laws. He covered a revolt in South Africa's Pondoland, and met with Herero chiefs in a dry Namibian riverbed.

In 1965 Woods became editor of the Dispatch and began in earnest to explore the potential of the press. Not content with integrating both the news coverage and the staff of his paper, Woods worked to integrate South African bus stops, cricket and rugby teams, and his own chess club. Charting a tortuous course through the government press laws, he managed to attack apartheid for years on an almost daily basis without being banned or having his paper shut down by the government. By timing his harshest attacks carefully, by insisting on strict objectivity in reporting, and by signing the most dangerous editorials himself, Woods held the authorities at bay. He also found that although some white readers dropped the paper after integration, the increase in black readership more than made up for the loss. Woods, supported by a nervy staff, took the Dispatch where no other paper had gone. Each step, even printing a photo of a black couple on the Weddings page, demanded unusual courage.

To be a South African liberal is a far riskier proposition than to be a liberal in America. Throughout his pioneering years, Woods was motivated by political and humanistic beliefs that would seem pedestrian in the US. His political values grew from personal lessons: from his father's efforts to fight price-gouging during a grain shortage, from a law professor's rebuke when the young Woods made a racist comment in class, and from talks with such "enemies" as Prime Minister Vorster. Woods' insistence on the human content of politics kept him from ever becoming rigidly ideological. It also helps fill his book with sharply drawn portraits of South Africans -- from Donald Card, a reconstructed ex-member of the Security Police, to Mamphela Ramphele, the ebullient black woman doctor who first led Woods to Biko. Always remembering that politics is made by people, Woods sought his goals with a directness and ready humor that made men like Vorster willing to talk with him, and even to offer a grudging respect. "I like to know what the real enemy is thinking," Vorster once told him.

South African government officials, Woods found, were blinkered by their own self-righteous solemnity. It was as though the experience of power had altered their vision. "Even the trees look different," one Afrikaner said in 1948 when the Nationalist Party first took power. Prime Minister Vorster, in his talks with Woods, seemed quite unaware that the real leaders of the blacks were not the Matanzimas and Buthelezis, but the Mandelas and Sobukwes.

Like Swift and other political gadflies, Woods used humor in his journalism to puncture such complacent self-delusion, whether poking fun at a Prime Minister's addiction to peppermints or chronicling his Southern adventures for Punch. The same vigor and eye for the ridiculous enliven this autobiography. Threatened with imprisonment, Woods embarrassed the prison warden by coming to inspect the accommodations. He joked with the Security Police who arrested him and loaded him into the back seat of a car to be taken back to East London. He would sit on the left, he said. "Ek het linkse neigings." ("I have leftish inclinations.")

Yet for all his clear-sighted iconoclasm, Woods' conception of his country was shaken by the killing of Steve Biko and by the banning order that followed his own protests. When a poisoned T-shirt was mailed to his young daughter, when police in a passing car fired five bullets into his home, and when the inescapable indictment of the regime began to develop from the book he was secretly writing -- Biko -- Woods knew he would have to leave. In the first minutes of his escape, huddled on the floor of his car as his wife Wendy drove him through the streets of his home town, Woods felt oddly similar to the Afrikaner of 1948. Once again, South Africa had shown an unfamiliar face. A shift in power had changed everything. Even the trees looked different.


Published in IDAF News Notes, April 1982.