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Ivan Toms (1953 - )

The Order of the Baobab in

Ivan Toms (1953 - ) Awarded for:
His outstanding contribution to the struggle against Apartheid and sexual discrimination.

Profile of Ivan Toms

Ivan Toms was born in Cape Town in 1953. He completed his medical degree at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 1976. This was followed by a year-long medical internship at Kimberley Hospital. In 1978, Toms was conscripted to serve in the South African Defence Force (SADF).

Although vehemently opposed to the operations of the then SADF, leaving South Africa was never an option for him. After consultation with Archbishop Denis Hurley, he decided to do his national service, but in the capacity of a non-combatant doctor. He spent six months in Namibia in this capacity.

Toms attended the South African Christian Leadership Assembly (SACLA) in Pretoria during which he was instructed to set up a clinic in Crossroads, a squatter settlement 15 km outside Cape Town. At the time, the people of Crossroads had no access to health facilities. Together with the Rev David Russell, Toms set up the Empilisweni SACLA Clinic Committee with residents of Crossroads and Rev John Freeth of the St John's Parish, Wynberg, Cape Town. He was the only doctor caring for 60 000 squatters.

In September 1983, a three-week confrontation erupted between the Crossroads community and Administration Board officials and police as a result of the erection of 'illegal structures' by squatters. The brutalities of the SADF in this period made Toms determined to never again serve in the army. He decided to go public with his opinions in the press. He became a founder member of the End Conscription Campaign, a movement that opposed the compulsory conscription of white South African men for military training.

In February 1985, the Government decided to forcibly remove the Crossroads settlement, resulting in intense unrest and 18 deaths and 178 injuries. Toms and the Empilisweni SACLA Clinic team stayed in the area for four days, attending to the injured. In 1986, the SADF took control of the clinic during the 'witdoeke' attack on Crossroads and the KTC squatter camp. Toms and the SACLA team turned the takeover into an opportunity by training and extending support to 150 community health workers.

In July 1987, Toms defied a one-month SADF camp conscription, consequently suffering intense victimisation at the hands of the SADF. A public trial resulted during which Toms's sexual orientation was also questioned. His lawyer, Edwin Cameron, called the Anglican Bishop David Russell to testify on Toms's behalf. The Bishop endorsed Toms's fight against racial oppression and homophobia. On 3 March 1988, Toms was sentenced to 21 months’ imprisonment. He served nine months in Pollsmoor Prison as a 'criminal' prisoner, after which he was released on bail.

That same year, Toms was invited to the International Conference on Children, Repression and the Law in Apartheid South Africa, in Harare, Zimbabwe, to talk about his experiences in Crossroads. In 1991, Toms became national co-ordinator of the National Progressive Primary Healthcare Network responsible for developing a national AIDS programme. In 1993, he became director of the Students' Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (SHAWCO), a non-governmental organisation linked to UCT.

Among many outreach programmes, SHAWCO ran mobile clinics in townships staffed by UCT medical students. In 1996, he moved into local government health services. Toms was appointed director of city health of Cape Town in 2002, a position he still holds today.

Toms is a remarkable individual who has always had the courage of his convictions. He could easily have lived a life of privilege and comfort but opted instead to reflect on the realities of the country and to take a bold stand against the injustices he witnessed.