Donald Woods Ends Anti-Apartheid Series with Call for Greater Awareness of Human Rights

Today concludes a week of anti-apartheid appearances in Japan by former South African newspaper editor Donald Woods, whose books were the basis of Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1987 motion picture, “Cry Freedom.” An outspoken critic of South Africa’s racial segregation system, Woods has lived in exile in England since 1978, when he fled from South African restrictions that were placed on him for challenging the death-in-detention of black leader Stephen Biko. Still “banned” from being quoted in his native country, Woods’ exclusive interview with Japan Times Staff Writer Brian Covert in Osaka is excerpted as follows.

Woods begins the interview with his views about a June 1 “letter to the editor” in The Japan Times, written by Mr. P.R. Dietrichsen, the South African acting consul general in Tokyo. —EDITOR

Japan Times: Let’s start with the letter.

Donald Woods: I don’t understand how the acting consul general, Mr. Dietrichsen, can claim that the South African government is “rapidly eliminating” what he calls the “remaining shortcomings” in that country after 40 years and four days in that administration. One can hardly describe as “shortcomings” the world’s worst system of racial discrimination and the disenfranchisement of 85 percent of the population.

Mr. Dietrichsen and other members of the South African government keep talking about apartheid as if it is some sort of regrettable oversight, rather than the complex panoply of restrictions and barriers to individual progress which make up the apartheid laws.

JT: There has been talk in the U.S. Congress of renewed, harsher sanctions (against Pretoria). What do you make of those?

DW: Sanctions are inevitable. As one who has been campaigning for the last 10 years for sanctions, I’m happy to see that the United States is taking the lead. Congress has made it plain that no matter who wins the presidential election in November, stronger sanctions will be put in place.

JT: South Africa’s response has been pretty tough talk about holding back on minerals. How far do you think they will go?

DW: If we survey South African history over the past 40 years under the present administration (Afrikaner Nationalist Party) in Pretoria, we find that whenever these bombastic threats have been uttered by South Africa, they fail to carry them out when the crunch comes. My belief is that the same will happen over sanctions. My hope is that the South African government will react positively by coming to the negotiating table with the leaders of the black majority to draft a democratic constitution for the first time in our history.

JT: Looking at Japan’s role in all of this as a country whose trade is rising with South Africa…how does that make Japan look in your eyes, in black South Africans’ eyes?

DW: I’ve had discussions in Tokyo with leading corporations who are trading with South Africa, and I pointed out to them that it would be in their own interests, as well as the right thing to do, if they disengaged from South Africa and relocated their trade relationships into the front-line states (surrounding South Africa)….

You may have a Japanese corporation that is the envy of the world in the excellence of its products, but if its brand image suffers (from possible boycotts), it’s going to start losing money to some extent, maybe losing far more than it would by staying involved in South Africa.

JT: What do you make of the “honorary white” title (given to Japanese companies)?

DW: It’s grossly insulting. I’m amazed that there has not been more outrage expressed among the Japanese people at this incredible insult.

JT: I’d like to talk a little bit about Steve Biko. You’ve gone pretty much into detail in your book [“Biko”], but could you give me some general thoughts on him?

DW: Yes. At the time of his death Steve Biko was broadening his political horizons considerably. He had had talks with the leadership of the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress, with the view to uniting both movements with the Black Consciousness Movement.

It is possibly for this reason that the South African government feared him so much, because they saw him as a factor in the potential unity of the major black movements. He was a man of tremendous intellect with a wisdom far beyond his years. Although I was much older than him, I always had the feeling of talking to someone older than me.

JT: You said in your book that you thought he was the greatest man you had ever met.

DW: That is literally true. It sounds a bit bombastic but it’s literally true. It’s a great tragedy that he was killed because he could have played such a leading role in liberation politics today — in a very positive sense.

JT: How do you feel your books and the movie “Cry Freedom” have affected the South African government’s apartheid system?

DW: The film has undoubtedly raised awareness throughout the world of the apartheid issue, and has led to an upsurge in support of the liberation cause in many countries (including) Japan. …I think the reason for this is that the story is told by a “white moderate” who cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be labeled as radical or terrorist.

In the past, the South African government managed to smear people like the African National Congress by labeling them terrorists. But organizations like the ANC are getting a lot of credibility and status now that they didn’t have before, because their essential positions are at last correctly being understood as moderate as well.

JT: You mentioned in your book that the white regime would have fallen by now.

DW: It’s hung on longer than I expected it to. On the other hand, I think it’s a mistake to assume that it’s as firmly in control as it suggests. I think what we are seeing now is the beginning of an unraveling of the ball of string that is white control. It’s coming loose at the edges somewhat, and that’s one of the reasons why (South African President P.W.) Botha feels impelled to ban 17 nonviolent organizations and to muzzle the press. Regimes that are in full control don’t have to go to those lengths to muzzle reasonable dissent.

JT: As a parting shot, what are your words of advice to Japanese and Western leaders?

DW: Well, I make the point that Japan has astonished the world over the last 30 years with its incredible surge to the status of economic superpower.

And I feel that the time has come for Japan to look now to the question of human rights and, in particular, to ensure that it does not become perceived as a country where human rights takes second place to material achievements.