ASKING FOR TROUBLE: Autobiography of a Banned Journalist by Donald Woods
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ASKING FOR TROUBLE: Autobiography of a Banned Journalist

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Donald Woods grew up on a trading post in the Transkei, speaking Xhosa ""as naturally as I spoke English""--and contemptuous, at law school in Cape Town, of ""liberal sentimentality"" about blacks. (""It's either send them back to the reserves or shoot them,"" he told a silently appalled professor.) A fugitive now from South Africa--following his protests at the killing of his friend Steve Biko (see his Biko, 1978)--Woods tells much more here than the story of his turnaround: the book is chockablock with tales of Bomvana tribesmen (""axe-fighting""--invariably fatal--""was only for uncircumcised youths""); provincial lawyering and Opposition-newspapering; a fierce, doomed race for Parliament; his two-year ascent to Fleet Street; Little Rock in 1960 (the similarities, the differences); and, after Sharpeville, Woods' return to South Africa--""to warn my fellow whites of the need to dismantle apartheid."" The turnaround? Abraham Lincoln's ""What is morally wrong can never be politically right""--demolishing the excuse that apartheid was a practical necessity. A black American, with a typical American accent--""If accent was a matter of environment, so might racial culture be."" And, one suspects, a simmering sense of estrangement from Afrikaner compulsion: Woods was not one to toe a line. Back on the East London Daily Dispatch and soon tapped (secretly, astonishingly) for the editorship, Woods was put through the journalistic ropes--acquiring, meanwhile, a name as a governmental gadfly. After a tumultous press conference on a new detention-without-trial law, Woods quoted Lincoln to PM Vorster (""I was already in trouble. . . had no domestic responsibilities"") and solicited an interview on Vorster's own WW II imprisonment-without-trial. The narrative details his embroilments--the crackdowns, the challenges--up through the killing of Biko, Woods' investigation, his banning (""I was forbidden to write; to be quoted; to be with more than one person at a time. . . ""), the surveillance, the threats and outright terrorism, and, in the final chapters, his hair-trigger escape--through Lesotho, garbed as a clergyman. Woods writes with fervor, wit, an extra-journalistic eye for detail, and surprisingly little animus. It's a tossup which is more engrossing--the man or the subject.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Atheneum