South Africa: ICRC honoured for work during apartheid era


On 18 November, in Johannesburg, Dr Jakob Kellenberger, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, was presented with the University of the Witwatersrand's Council Gold Medal in recognition of the organization's outstanding work, in particular during the apartheid years.



From Left : Wits University's Vice - Chancellor & Principal , Professor Loyiso Nongxa; ICRC President , Dr Jakob Kellenberger; Wits University Chancellor, The Honourable Justice Richard J. Goldstone and President of the Wits Convocation, Mr Sipho Mseleku.
©ICRC - 18/11/2003 


See also the

  press releaseUniversity of the Witwatersrand and the site of the  

Looking back on the struggle of South Africa as well as the many years he spent in prison, Nelson Mandela, Robben Island's most famous detainee, paid tribute to the ICRC for its work during the period of apartheid.

" In those early years, the International Committee of the Red Cross was the only organization that both listened to our complaints and responded to them, " the former President of South Africa and the African National Congress (ANC) wrote in his autobiography Long walk to freedom. " This was vital, because the authorities ignored us. "

ICRC activities in South Africa from 1963 to 1995 

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 d elegation 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.

Recognition of ICRC work during apartheid years 

The Gold Medal presented to ICRC President Jacob Kellenberger on 18 November was not the first honour received by the organization for its work during the period of apartheid. In 1995, in recognition of its visits to prisoners, the ICRC was invited to a commemorative reunion of former political prisoners on Robben Island, addressed by the then President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela.

Another former detainee of the island, Toivuya Toivu, then Namibia's Minister of Mines and Energy, subsequently paid tribute to the ICRC for its work in improving prison conditions.

ICRC presence in South Africa today 

The ICRC offers refugees and asylum seekers the possibility of re-establishing family links through its own network, with SARCS, local NGOs and the Department of Home Affairs. It can also issue ICRC Travel Documents to persons eligible for resettlement.

The ICRC contributes to all legislation implementing IHL in South Africa, while it also seeks to ensure that IHL is integrated into university and school programmes.

Through its relations with the private sector, such as the main multinational mining companies in South Africa, particularly Anglo-American and Billiton and their branches, the ICRC can gain a better understanding of the economic dynamics underlining conflict, useful in its formulation of operational strategies.

The Exploring Humanitarian Law (EHL) programme helps the ICRC spread awareness of IHL in secondary schools.

The ICRC participates in media courses, publishes a newsletter and meets with journalists to make the media aware of humanitarian problems and mobilize their support.

ICRC support for HIV/AIDS programmes in South Africa 

The ICRC supports the SARCS National Community Health Based Care HIV/AIDS Programme, and specifically the activities of the Soweto branch.

The national programme is being implemented across the country and its activities include: carrying out awareness activities in vulnerable communities; addressing prevention through health education, first aid and peer education; creating positive attitude communities; providing care and support for people affected by HIV/AIDS and other debilitating diseases, including orphans and other children; providing counselling, emotional and spiritual support, food parcels and other material aid; providing support for community projects such as food gardens.

The programme structure is based on trained facilitators and volunteers providing direct support to families/households, schools and communities, including assistance to ensure they have access to Department of Health and Department of Social Welfare services through a well-functioning referral system. The programme currently benefits 7,200 people directly and 36,000 people indirectly, including entire families. There are also 2,400 orphans on the programme.

SARCS Soweto branch HIV/AIDS project 

The Soweto branch HIV/AIDS project, which has been fully funded by the ICRC for over three years (for many more years as the community-based first aid programme), now receives grants from local government and other community support groups. The project currently has 90 care-givers supported by 180 trained volunteers.

The ICRC's financial support to the project in 2003 amounted to 116,000 Swiss francs. In 2004, its projected support will go down by 50% and S ARCS will introduce new funding sources, particularly through channels provided by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.