Gun Free South Africa (GFSA) was formed in 1995 with the aim of making a material contribution to the safety and security of South Africa by reducing gun-related violence.
How GFSA started and some highlights in the organisation’s history
Guns in the new South Africa
GFSA traces its roots back to the months preceding South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, when religious leaders and others launched various peace initiatives to address the violent conflicts that prevailed at the time.
Guns had proliferated in the hands of different political factions and were widely distributed to groups claiming they were needed for ‘self defence’. The unarmed majority lived in fear on trains and taxis, in the streets and in their homesteads and dwellings. There was real concern that there might be a military coup and many feared civil war between various powerful political formations.
It was in this charged environment that the seed for GFSA was planted; with a campaign for civilians to hand in their guns for destruction by the authorities. The prime movers of the campaign were members of the religious sub-committee involved in implementing the Peace Accord that gave birth to democracy in South Africa. Prominent individuals like Bishop Peter Storey saw a need to rid South Africa of illegal guns, which had reached excessive levels following the political conflict preceding 1994. The aim of the new campaign was to assist the new government remove firearms from the streets of South Africa.
A day of amnesty was declared by the government on 16 December 1994, where no one would be prosecuted for handing in unlicensed firearms. Although the amnesty did not meet with a lot of success, it succeeded in putting the issue of gun ownership on the South African socio-political agenda. It also led to the establishment of GFSA in 1995.
The first three years of GFSA were spent trying to understand the issues and establishing linkages with other organisations in the sector. It was during this time that the true extent of gun violence in South Africa became apparent; more people were being shot and killed in South Africa than died on the countries roads. South Africa had the death profile of a country at war. Yet legislation to control gun ownership, the Arms and Ammunition Act of 1969, was woefully inadequate in ensuring that gun owners were fit and proper e.g. there were no competency requirements or licence renewal systems, the age limit for gun ownership was 16 years and the limit on the number of guns an individual could own was twelve.
Gun Control Alliance
Using the motto, ‘one message, many voices’, GFSA began the process of building a broad-based civil society alliance in support of stricter gun control. The Gun Control Alliance was launched in 1999, growing to represent over 450 organisations, institutions and individuals representing business, health, human rights, religious, women and youth organisations.
The GCA had its origins in the Gun Control Charter, which was developed in late 1998 by GFSA in consultation with a number of stakeholders as a tool to bridge the gap between policy makers and civil society. The Charter consisted of a list of minimum demands to be included in a new Firearms Control Act.
Following the release of the Charter in February 1999, GFSA undertook an intensive campaign to get as many organisations and individuals to endorse the Charter. Those endorsing the Charter became members of the Gun Control Alliance (GCA).
When the public was invited to comment on the Firearms Control Bill, GFSA focussed its attention on the GCA in encouraging submissions. Oral and written submissions in support of the new law came largely from individuals and organisations involved in the GCA.
GFSA undertook a number of activities to encourage written submissions, including issuing alerts that were sent out to keep people up-to-date and a submission pack that was developed and widely distributed. The submission pack included a summary of the Bill and a document entitled ‘making sure your voice stops a bullet’ which described what a submission is, and how to make one, as well as other tactics that could be used by civil society to lobby parliament.
Some were run with organisations representing broad constituencies, to help them identify the significance of the Firearms Control Bill for their constituency and so develop a submission. Other workshops were run with disadvantaged communities, which had been historically excluded from the policy process.
In deciding which communities to run workshops with, GFSA focussed on those communities with which it already had established a relationship through the Gun Free Zone (GFZ) project.
Two rounds of public hearings on the Firearms Control Bill were held in Cape Town – the first in June 2000 and the second in August of the same year.
GFSA continued to play a co-ordinating role during this phase of the submissions’ process – briefing the GCA regularly on the hearings, and arranging flights to and accommodation in Cape Town. GFSA also worked closely with presenters, briefing them on what had already been said, and helping them to focus their inputs so that new issues were constantly raised for the parliamentary committee to consider.
Samuel Kobela lives in Mapela – a poor rural community in Limpopo Province. He made an oral submission to Parliament on the Firearms Control Bill. In this letter Samuel reflects on his experience:
“First, I would say, when I heard the news that I would be going to Cape Town to make an oral submission on the Firearms Control Bill, I got excited, nervous and proud. I got excited in the sense that it would be my first time to fly and also my first visit to Cape Town and to Parliament as well as to the sea. I got nervous when I thought of presenting before the MPs, and I felt proud at being invited by the Safety and Security Portfolio Committee. Adèle [the Director of GFSA] and myself left her home at 16h15 to Joburg International Airport. Our flight to Cape Town was scheduled for 18h00. On board the flight I was relaxed because I was sitting next to Adèle. We arrived in Cape Town at 20h00. We drove to Sea Point where we spent the night. Sea Point is next to the sea and really I had a clear view of the sea. In the evening, Adèle acted as the Portfolio Committee Chairperson and asked me to present. After my presentation, she asked me questions. She encouraged me – and this kind of practice really helped me. I went to bed at 23h00 and woke up at 5am. Before we drove to Parliament Claire (a GFSA staff member) and myself walked on foot to the sea where she took pictures of me. We arrived at Parliament at 8h30. During the Public Hearings I listened carefully to presenters. Some of the presenters were furious, criticising the Bill as a whole. Nevertheless I realised how friendly the MPs were. When theChairperson called my name, I felt nervous, but when I started talking I regained confidence. Mypresentation focussed on two issues: Gun Free Zones (GFZs) and the Age Limit. I supported chapter 20 (of the FCB) on GFZs. GFZs are about community safety and the initiative has been going on for three years in Mapela and is getting support from more residents. I also objected to the age limit of 18 (in the FCB) and proposed the age should go to 25. This will exclude school going kids and will also make the implementation of GFZs in schools easier. After my presentation, the MPs applauded me for the work I’ve been doing.”
GFSA’s work during this period has been soundly applauded, as was confirmed in an independent evaluation by a funder of the GCA. According to this evaluation, the overwhelming assessment of the GCA by stakeholders, including alliance members, state department officials and MPs, is that the Alliance significantly contributed to the campaign for stricter gun control. In particular, the use of workshops to assist communities was identified as especially helpful as was the submission pack. Overall there was a sense from community representatives that GFSA had empowered them and their communities. Mike Moses from Geluksdal on Gauteng’s East Rand, says that, “no one in our community had ever made a submission before…(so) the submission pack was very good. It empowered us. We learned that individuals could make a submission. Also, if we had to make other submissions, we could use these guidelines, which help us stay focussed on the areas that affect us.”
In 2000, despite massive opposition from South Africa’s gun lobby, the Firearms Control Act (FCA) was passed and promulgated in 2004.
Gun Free Zones
See Preventing Gun Violence for information and resources on how to declare your space (be it your home, place of work or worship) a gun free zone.
What is a Gun Free Zone?
A GFZ is a space in which firearms and ammunition are not welcome. There are different types of GFZs, from those that are strictly enforced to those that are based on trust. Research by GFSA shows that the business sector is more likely to strictly enforce its gun free status by asking people to declare their firearms, searching people, either electronically or bodily and having safes in which to store firearms. This is because businesses have the money to pay for security guards, safes and search systems.
In contrast, community organisations like schools, places of worship or NGOs are less likely to strictly enforce their gun free status. Instead they trust that visitors will respect this status. One of the reasons is that many community organisations do not have the money to pay for security guards, search systems or safes; another reason is that they do not want to have these systems. This is because security guards, search systems or safes act as a barrier between the organisation and the community, alienating the organisation from the wider community.
What’s a Firearm Free Zone?
When the Firearms Control Act was being debated in Parliament, many community organisations urged MPs to recognise the power of GFZs in creating islands of safety in a sea of guns. MPs listened, and included Section 140 in the Firearms Control Act, which makes provision for Firearm Free Zones (FFZ).
Section 140 of South Africa’s Firearms Control Act gives the Minister of Police the power to declare spaces as Firearm Free Zones (FFZ). The main difference between a voluntary GFZ and FFZ under the Firearms Control Act has to do with penalties:
- It is a civil offence to contravene the GFZ status of a premise – anybody found contravening a GFZ can be prosecuted under laws that prohibit trespassing.
- It is a criminal offence to contravene the FFZ status of a premise – anybody found contravening an FFZ will go to court. Schedule 4 – Penalties of the FCA lists the maximum period of imprisonment:
- For allowing a firearm or ammunition into an FFZ: Five years.
- For carrying a firearm or ammunition in an FFZ: Ten years.
- For storing a firearm or ammunition in an FFZ: Twenty-five years.
Click here for more information on the differences between GFZs and FFZs.
South African Police Tender
Recognising that violence at schools is a major problem, the South African Police Service (SAPS) put out a tender in February 2000 for a pilot project to develop, implement and maintain schools as FFZs under Section 140 of the Firearms Control Act.
GFSA applied for and was awarded the SAPS tender because of our experience in helping communities and organisations across South Africa become GFZs.
In total 27 schools across South Africa participated in the FFZ pilot project, which was called IgunIflop. An independent evaluation of the pilot’s impact by the CSIR found that participants overwhelmingly (70%) believed that they were safer after their school became a gun free zone; 23% felt it made no difference and just 7% felt that it made their school less secure.
The 5-step participatory approach used in the pilot allowed each school to create a policy that met its own unique needs to resolve logistical challenges when implementing the policy. By engaging the local police, community police forums and neighbourhood watches, the approach built networks that secured the long-term safety of the school.
Further, in both rural and urban areas where crime and gangsterism prevail, youth strongly supported their school becoming gun free; the process itself created the space to engage youth around the issue of guns and gun violence, giving them the opportunity and power to directly influence their immediate environment and develop alternative responses to violence.
While all 27 schools in the pilot adopted GFZ policies and applied to the Minister of Police to be declared as Firearm Free Zones under Section 140 of the Firearms Control Act, to date the Minister has yet to declare any space a Firearm Free Zone.
2010 National Firearms Amnesty
As South Africa geared itself to host the FIFA World Cup, GFSA kicked off 2010 by partnering with the Secretariat for Police on the 2010 national firearms amnesty, which aimed at reducing the number of firearms in the country prior to hosting the world’s biggest sporting event.
During the amnesty, held from 11 January to 11 April 2010, the public were given immunity from prosecution for being in illegal possession of firearms or ammunition. However, to be considered for amnesty, individuals had to complete an application form providing the police with their name, identification number, contact details as well information about the firearm and ammunition being handed in. This was intended as a safeguard against individuals getting de-facto immunity for firearm-related crimes, other than being in illegal possession.
GFSA played a leading role in the amnesty; monitoring the process, thereby ensuring civil society oversight and transparency and assisting the police with communicating the amnesty message.
Communicating the Amnesty Message
GFSA led a successful mass awareness-raising campaign to promote the gun amnesty, enlisting the pro-bono assistance of advertising agency Young & Rubicam (Y&R) to develop creative and exciting ways of communicating the amnesty message. The campaign, called Umshini Wakho, aimed at encouraging the public to hand in illegal guns and ammunition during the 2010 national firearms amnesty.
To illustrate the fact that with so many guns circulating the streets, there is a bullet out there with every South African’s name on it, over 15,000 bullet cases engraved with common South African names were scattered in the streets of Cape Town. A flier rolled up in each case detailed the dangers of owning an illegal gun and the specifics of the amnesty programme. Train commuters on busy routes were issued with two travel tickets; one actual ticket and one representing a one-way ticket to prison for 15 years, the usual conviction for possession of an unlicensed firearm.
To further promote the amnesty, the popular Zulu call to arms ‘struggle’ song used by the ANC during apartheid, was re-recorded editing the lyrics to call people to disarm.
Monitoring the Amnesty Process
GFSA served as the official independent monitor for the amnesty process, with monitors working across five provinces. Monitors undertook unannounced oversight visits at over 200 police stations nationally. These visits checked on each station’s compliance with the amnesty process, verifying that the firearms recorded as handed in were in fact held in the police safe. Monitors also assisted with identifying any potential problems at police stations, reporting these to the national task team.
At the close of the amnesty period a total of 32,169 firearms and 348,083 rounds of ammunition had been handed in, representing a major victory in the fight against firearm proliferation in South Africa.