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Destruction of Apartheid Forecast : Former South African Editor Says System Is Coming Apart

Times Staff Writer

The system of racial segregation in South Africa is sliding toward destruction, a former newspaper editor from that country said Wednesday.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a headlong slide . . . I’m speaking of years, but maybe not too many of them,” Donald Woods, 51, said in an interview Wednesday before a speech at UC Irvine.

Woods, who is Caucasian, became known for his outspoken support for Steven Biko, a young black South African who died in 1977 while in police custody.

As a result of his support for Biko, founder of South Africa’s “Black Consciousness” movement, Woods was arrested at Johannesburg airport en route to the United States, and his passport was seized. He was placed under a form of house arrest that prohibited him from speaking to more than one person at a time or being quoted in the news media.

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He later escaped by donning a disguise and swimming across a river that divides South Africa from black-ruled Lesotho.

Woods, who now lives with his family in London, has chronicled his experiences in two books: “Biko” and “Asking for Trouble,” which have been optioned by a film company.

Woods said he had no doubt that the Pretoria regime, based on white supremacy and racial exploitation of that country’s overwhelming black majority, was doomed.

“It will end, and it will end with the blacks winning,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to end through a cataclysmic clash of black guerrillas against white soldiers.”

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Rather, he said, it would be “a coming together, at some point, of all of the things that have been happening in sequence up (until) now. There will be a point where you will get disturbances all over the country--'disturbances,’ there’s a euphemism--where you’ll get escalation of war on the borders, which is happening already . . . and you’ll get also industrial strikes, striking miners. You’ll get an increase in sabotage in cities, in the white areas.

“When all these things are happening at once, I don’t think that the government is going to contain the situation. I think they are already far less able to contain the situation than they suggest to the outside world.”

The liberal opposition in the all-white parliament, he said, no longer has a meaningful role. Woods, a founder of the Progressive Federal Party, said that this conclusion saddened him.

“I believe the parliamentary role should have ended about 10 years ago,” he said. Members “should have marched out of the parliament--maybe even sooner. Because the blacks feel that, no matter how well-intentioned they (white members) are, they lend some degree of legitimacy to what is really a crazy parliament.”

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Woods, in the midst of a speaking tour in more than a dozen U. S. cities, said he strongly supported trade sanctions against South Africa and the divestiture of investments in U. S. firms doing business there, although the impact of such moves was primarily “psychological, rather than economic.”

He rejected the argument by some blacks and whites that sanctions will hurt black workers most.

“Not at all,” he said. “That’s a line that’s been very heavily pushed by the South African government, at very great (financial) cost, and it’s a very seductive message if you look at it superficially. But there is massive evidence that contradicts that.”

The economic situation, he said, “is bad for everyone at the moment, relatively speaking, when compared with two or three years ago. What’s happened is the built-in weaknesses of the system have at last caught up with the country.”

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These weaknesses, said Woods, who was educated as a lawyer, are overdependence on gold--the price of which has dropped considerably--and a vast, unproductive bureaucracy. More than 40% of working whites are employed by the government, many of them paid to administer the machinery of racial segregation, like the “pass laws” that require all nonwhites to carry an internal passport. The country’s national debt, he said, is $23 billion.

“For years they got away with crazy economics because of the gold prices, and now things are coming apart at the seams,” he said.

Woods also discounted government charges that South African blacks would be unable to govern themselves because of tribalism.

“Tribalism is a factor farther north in Africa,” he said. “In South Africa for a hundred years it’s the opposite. (Blacks) have condemned tribalism for many years. They see it as a kind of white concept imposed on blacks to divide them.”

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Woods said he keeps in contact with South Africa by telephone, averaging two calls a week. He dials direct, he said, because the volume of calls to South Africa from abroad makes monitoring more difficult.

His speaking tour is focused mainly on colleges, he said, because “I believe there is on the campuses today a lot of potential idealism that’s not being realized.”

He recalled that, after fleeing South Africa in 1978, he predicted that the regime would fall within seven years, a deadline that has passed.

“Maybe tomorrow morning,” he said with a chuckle.

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