Donald WOODS CBE (1933-2001)

Donald Woods This Is Your Life

programme details...

  • Edition No: 1057
  • Subject No: 1032
  • Broadcast date: Thu 14 Dec 2000
  • Broadcast time: 8.00-8.30pm
  • Recorded: Mon 18 Sep 2000
  • Venue: Teddington Studios
  • Series: 41
  • Edition: 4
  • Code name: Bowls

on the guest list...

  • Wendy - wife
  • Jane - daughter
  • Dillon - son
  • Duncan - son
  • Gavin - son
  • Mary - daughter
  • Penelope Wilton
  • David Lewis
  • Fred Rumsey
  • George Johannes
  • message from Nelson Mandela
  • Harland - brother
  • Terry Warren
  • Judge Harold Levy
  • John Ryan
  • Bruce Haig
  • Colin Legum
  • Margaret Legum
  • Richard Attenborough
  • Richard Branson
  • Graham - son-in-law
  • Kate - granddaughter
  • Sophie - granddaughter
  • Nkosinathi Biko
  • Filmed tributes:
  • Kevin Kline
  • Malusi Mpumlwana
  • Terry Briceland
  • Donald Card

production team...

  • Researcher: Jo Grant
  • Writer: Ian Brown
  • Director: John Gorman
  • Associate Producer: Helen Gordon-Smith
  • Executive Producer: John Longley
  • Series Producer: Jack Crawshaw
  • Producer: Sue Green
  • names above in bold indicate subjects of This Is Your Life
related pages...
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Screenshots of Donald Woods This Is Your Life

news24 3 January 2001

Donald Woods a separatist?

London - Donald Woods CBE, probably one of the best-known white anti-apartheid activists, was as rightwing as could be when he was a young man. As a law student at the University of Cape Town, he convincingly defended his "separatist viewpoints".

"Politically he was so far right that I thought he came round the second time," said Harold Levy, a former lecturer of Woods and now judge in Namibia, recently on the BBC programme This Is Your Life.

The 67 year-old Woods's book about his friendship with murdered black consciousness leader, Steve Biko, brought him international fame and in this highly respected programme he was honoured by presenter Michael Aspel.

In the programme, the person who is being honoured is brought to the studio without their knowing they will appear on the show. Their life story then gets read out from the so-called Red Book by Aspel. Family members and friends are also brought to the BBC studios in London or their tributes and anecdotes on aspects of the person's life are recorded on video or read out as messages.

Woods, the Editor of the Daily Dispatch in East London at the time, was under house arrest when he fled South Africa in 1977 with his family. His book Biko caused a worldwide sensation and in 1987 it was the nucleus of the film Cry Freedom by British director, Sir Richard Attenborough.

Attenborough, Kevin Kline, who played the role of Woods in Cry Freedom, and former President Nelson Mandela were among the many who praised Woods for his role in dismantling apartheid.

Attenborough said the characteristic he most admired was that of courage. "Not only physical courage but also that brought about by dedication", and Woods and his "remarkable family" had an overflow of that.

Mandela said in his message that he and other political prisoners on Robben Island were "cheered" by Woods's leading articles that were smuggled into the prison.

At the end of 1999 Woods was made a Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth as one of the British Millennium honours for his services to human rights.

But as a young man in the fifties, Woods had completely different political convictions, said Aspel when he read Wood's life story from the Red Book.

"In your final years at college (Christian Brother's in Kimberley), you showed a talent for debate, but not really a propensity for liberalism. One time you successfully argued that blacks were being treated fairly and that white supremacy should continue," said Aspel. This caused Woods to give an embarrassed laugh, scratch his head and shift around in his chair in the studio.

"You took your separatist viewpoints with you when you went to study law at the University of Cape Town. There you met a lecturer that changed your way of thinking. Today he is a judge in Namibia."

A voice then boomed over the studio guests, who included Woods's wife Wendy, his five children, his brother and British businessman Richard Branson demanding: "What do you plead, guilty or not guilty?" and Judge Levy, his former lecturer, walked into the studio and embraced Woods.

"What is the verdict on Donald Woods?" Aspel asked Levy.

"When Donald came to me, he was so far right politically that I thought he came round the second time. Woods was full of arguments and tried to justify his standpoint. I did not interrupt him. Eventually he realised how stupid his viewpoint was. He realised his own shortcomings."

"My verdict is: Donald, you are not guilty," said Levy to laughter.

Series 41 subjects

Matthew Pinsent | Todd Carty | Vinnie Jones | Donald Woods | Linda Lusardi | Dorothy Tutin | Paula Tilbrook | John Humphrys
Andrew Davis | James Ellis | Sue Jenkins | Geoffrey Hughes | John van Weenen | Charles Dance | Mick Channon
Jonathan Ross | Simon Rouse | Midge Ure | John Barnes | Paul Jones | Patrick Robinson | Jim Shekhdar
Valerie Singleton | Darren Gough | Kevin Woodford | Richard Stilgoe