Former Dispatch editor Donald Woods would have turned 90 on December 15. Not too many readers I suspect, except those who knew him well and his fight against apartheid would have paid much attention to this snippet in the newspaper’s daily “Famous Birthdays” column on that day. After all it was 47 years ago that he was stripped of his editorship and banned for five years by BJ Vorster’s National Party government.
East London and SA thus lost a loyal, highly talented, fifth-generation South African, a brilliant writer and a fine, warm human being who wanted justice and peace for his beloved country. He died in 2001 at the age of 67 in London.
We worked together in the old oil-soaked Dispatch building in Caxton Street when we were in our 20s.
Regardless of the consequences, he was always ready to confront the authorities on human rights issues but anyone who knew the real Woods would have known a fun-loving, sharp-witted, compassionate man who loved sport and maintained there was nothing wrong with the character of a person who played or followed cricket!
To play practical jokes on his fellow workers amused him and we loved him like a brother.
Always a wave and a cheery hello when we passed in the passage. I could tell you 100 anecdotes about the man.
Let’s start with a remarkable game of golf when Donald, chief sub-editor Fred Croney, sports editor David Denison, deputy editor and former Fleet Street journalist EW (Ted) Holliday and myself made up a party to play around at the East London Golf Club one Saturday.
Things went as expected with Denison, the only real golfer among us, showing the way. Then came two extraordinary episodes which to this day still bring joyful memories. The first concerned Holliday, later a colleague of mine at The Rep. Ted teed up and with his driver gave the ball an almighty smack — or thought he did. We all had our eyes fixed on the middle distance to catch the flight of the ball and where it landed. No ball! It was eventually found in Ted’s shirt pocket! No kidding.
He had caught the ball in such a way that it bounced straight up and popped into his top pocket.
Then, on one of the par-four holes, where the fairway slopes upward then dog-legs to the left downhill to the green, alongside the clubhouse, Donald had fluffed his drive and hacked his way to the top of the hill where he finally found a favourable lie to the green below.
He chose a seven-iron and hit the perfect approach shot.
The ball wafted in on a gentle easterly sea breeze and plopped down two feet from the hole. He duly sank his putt with studied nonchalance which gave the impression to a group of fellow golfers that it was either an eagle or a birdie.
Donald accepted the warm applause with a majestic bow and a doff of his cap before entering a six on his card!
When I was head of production, I had to deal with various executives including our beloved editor putting in a token appearance at night when we were at full tilt. One evening, there stood Donald clad in full evening dress. He had clearly been to a function where something had got up his nose. “Charles,” he said, “I want to have a go at the SABC.”
Despairingly, I told him we had already given the night editor Glyn Williams, three revise proofs of the leader page.
It was already on the rotary press in metal form ready for the print run. I warned him to change it now would throw the deadline schedule out and consequently jeopardise the run which would disrupt the newspaper’s distribution. But he was the editor and insisted.
Asked for the copy, he blandly replied: “Oh, I haven’t written it yet, sorry!”
But as always we prevailed, made up lost time and the government’s propaganda machine received another severe bruising from the magic pen of the mighty Woods.
Alas, all four of those highly talented newspapermen have shuffled off this mortal coil, bless them, and it will be a long time before we see their likes again.