Tributes have flowed in following the death of activist Ivan Toms, one of the country’s most respected and lauded gay men.
Toms, Cape Town’s Director of Health, was found dead in his home on Tuesday morning. The cause of death is unknown although police say that foul play is not suspected.
Fifty-five-year-old Toms was awarded the Order of the Baobab in Bronze for his “outstanding contribution to the struggle against apartheid and sexual discrimination” by President Mbeki in 2006.
“He was a fighter against apartheid and for human and democratic rights,” the African National Congress’s Western Cape secretary, Mcebisi Skwatsha was quoted as saying by SAPA.
“The passing of Ivan Toms is a great loss to the people of the city, the province and the country,” noted Cape Town’s Mayor Helen Zille.
Toms was known for his role as a founding member of the End Conscription Campaign – a movement that opposed the compulsory conscription of white South African men for military training during the apartheid era.
In 1985 he went on a three week long hunger strike to protest the deployment of soldiers in the townships and was later imprisoned for nine months for his refusal to serve in the army. During the trial his sexuality was made public – something which was vilified by his opponents.
Toms was active in supporting LGBT causes: He was a leader in OLGA, (the Organisation of Lesbian and Gay Activists), and met with ANC leaders in exile to discuss lesbian and gay rights which were later enshrined in the post-apartheid South African constitution.
He worked as a doctor in township clinics for over a decade and in recent years lobbied to improve HIV services and support in the country.
Zackie Achmat, TAC Deputy General-Secretary, said that “I met Ivan Toms in 1982, he was always committed to public health. He was an energetic, humorous and dedicated activist. Anti-apartheid activists will mourn his premature death.”
Toms will undergo a post-mortem examination which is expected to establish the cause of death. He leaves behind a brother who lives in Australia.