Toms was on Tuesday morning found dead in his Mowbray, Cape Town home after he failed to pitch for an important meeting. No foul play is suspected.
Small in stature, Toms’ presence could never be ignored as he made his boisterous voice heard whether at an official function or in the corridors of the civic centre where his office had sweeping views of the city he so adored.
‘He was warm and generous and desperately proud of being gay,’ smiled Louise Robertson, a close friend who had just over a week ago dropped Toms off at the Argus Cycle Tour start before he completed his umpteenth race.
‘He felt passionately and deeply about things. He wanted to make a difference and he did,’ she said.
Born in Cape Town in 1953 Toms completed his medical degree at the University of Cape Town in 1976. Two years later Toms was conscripted to serve in the South African Defence Force (SADF) and although he vehemently opposed to the operations of the defence force, leaving South Africa was never an option for him. He did his national service, but in the capacity of a non-combatant doctor in Namibia
Toms later attended the South African Christian Leadership Assembly (SACLA) during which he was instructed to set up a clinic in Crossroads, just outside Cape Town where there were no health facilities. At the time Toms was the only doctor caring for 60 000 residents.
In September 1983, a three-week confrontation erupted between the Crossroads community 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 and 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 several deaths and injuries. Toms and the Empilisweni 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.
In July 1987, Toms defied a one-month SADF camp conscription suffering intense victimisation at the hands of the SADF.
‘He couldn’t see the sense of having to go to the border. He told them the border was in the townships and they he couldn’t be in the township one day with a stethoscope and another day with a gun,’ recalled Professor Di McIntyre, a long-time colleague and friend of Toms.
Toms’ rejection of military service led to a public trial during which Toms’s sexual orientation as a gay man was also questioned. On 3 March 1988, Toms was sentenced to 21 months’ imprisonment of which he served nine months in Pollsmoor Prison as a ‘criminal’ prisoner, after which he was released on bail.
At the time of his sentence the Judge said although he had no option but to follow the law and sentence Toms: ‘You are not a criminal. Our jails are there for people who are a menace to society ‘ you are not a menace to society. In fact you are just the opposite, you have always been an asset to society in the services you have rendered.’
In 1991, Toms became national co-ordinator of the National Progressive Primary Healthcare Network and two years later 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. At the time of his death Toms was serving as Executive director of City Health of Cape Town.
‘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,’ the Presidency wrote in a profile on Toms before he received the Order of the Baobab in Bronze for ‘his outstanding contribution to the struggle against Apartheid and sexual discrimination.
Under Toms’ stewardship Cape Town became a shining light of what could be achieved despite overwhelming case loads. Just over a week ago, he rewarded staff for making huge strides in lifting the city’s tuberculosis cure rates, also distributing millions of condoms and making sure HIV positive people have access to anti-retrovirals.
‘He made a big difference to health in Cape Town,’ said Dr Peter Barron, co-editor of the District Health Barometer, a tool which measures and monitors the country’s health systems.
Professor Willem Hanekom, a close friend and colleague said Toms’ death was still unreal. ‘My overwhelming memory was that he was larger than life. He had such incredible energy that was all very positive. He was excellent at what he did professionally and to his friends he was the warmest and most giving person. He was himself, always.’
Stunned long-time friend Stanley Hermans said it was impossible to speak of Toms in the past tense. ‘The issues he stood for and fought for are still very much alive,’ he said.
Toms is survived by a brother who resides in Australia and his other great loves, his two Dalmatians – Timmo and Sammy.