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The ICRC’s work in South Africa from 1963 to 1995

06-12-2013 Feature

An overview of the ICRC’s activities in South Africa over three decades.

In 1963, the ICRC first received authorization from the Ministry of Justice to visit a prisoner on Robben Island. Since then, it has visited thousands of prisoners all over the country and provided families with food assistance and travel tickets to visit detainees.

In 1976, during the Soweto uprisings, the ICRC stepped up these protection activities.

In 1978, the ICRC opened a delegation in Pretoria. In the early 1980s, it opened an office in Windhoek to carry out activities such as monitoring war-prone areas in the north of South-West Africa (SWA), maintaining contact with the South African civil and military authorities and the South-West African People's Organization (SWAPO), and visiting Angolan PoWs and SWAPO security prisoners.

In 1980, the ICRC President received a declaration from ANC President Oliver Tambo committing the ANC, in case of armed conflict, to respect of international humanitarian law (IHL) provisions contained in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and 1977 Additional Protocols.

Four years later, the ICRC decided to examine whether victims of apartheid were protected by IHL and to engage the South African government on protection issues.

By 1985, in the absence of the UNHCR (South Africa had not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention), the ICRC delegation in Pretoria had become involved in protection, tracing and assistance activities for Mozambican refugees.

Due to the violent uprising in the Vaal Triangle in April 1985, which later spread throughout the townships of the country, the ICRC delegation developed intensive protection activities inside and outside the townships. It also transmitted allegations of abuses to the authorities and made proposals to visit persons detained for security reasons.

In July 1985, the South African authorities declared a State of Emergency and the ICRC increased its protection activities.

In 1986, the ICRC delegation was asked to leave the country following a decision by the 25th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent to suspend the participation of the South African authorities at the conference. The decision was reversed a month later and the delegation was allowed to stay with a much reduced expatriate staff. This made it difficult for the organization to carry out its humanitarian mandate. Over the years however, permission was given to increase the number of delegates.

In 1987, an ambitious programme was launched to transform the South African Red Cross Society (SARCS) into a multiracial, democratic body. The ICRC helped SARCS develop its activities in the townships and ran a joint relief operation for the victims of political violence, particularly in KwaZulu/Natal and Gauteng. Thousands of people received assistance in the form of cooking utensils, food parcels, blankets, plastic sheeting and burial vouchers. The ICRC also gave financial support to hire and train community organizers in order to promote self-help projects in the townships. The ICRC's cooperation with the National Society reached its height during the 1994 elections, with the mounting of a massive emergency preparedness operation at potential trouble spots throughout the country.

Also in 1987, all ICRC visits to detainees were suspended, though the ICRC continued to provide the families of detainees with food vouchers. Recreational items were also sent to prisons, particularly Robben Island which received a big consignment of sporting equipment.

In 1991, ICRC prison visits across South Africa resumed. In 1992, the ICRC was allowed for the first time to visit people detained in police stations. Where necessary, the organization urged the authorities to respect the basic rights of those incarcerated and improve material conditions.

By 1995, the Pretoria delegation had been transformed into a regional delegation covering seven countries of Southern Africa and the Indian Ocean. It now focuses on humanitarian diplomacy with states to ensure that IHL is integrated into the training of armed and security forces, into university programmes and secondary school curricula. A large portion of its work also relates to cooperation with National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in the region.