Gun Free SA traces its roots back to the months before SA’s first democratic elections on 27 April 1994.
Guns had proliferated in the hands of different political factions and groups claiming they were needed for ‘self-defence’. The unarmed majority lived in fear on trains and taxis, in the streets and in their homes. There was real concern that there might be a military coup and many feared civil war.
It was in this charged environment that the seed for Gun Free SA was planted; with a campaign for civilians to hand in their guns for destruction. The campaign movers were members of the religious sub-committee involved in the National Peace Accord that played a significant role in the birth of democracy in South Africa. Prominent individuals like President Nelson Mandela and Bishop Peter Storey – one of the founders of Gun Free SA – saw the campaign as central to this process.
A day of amnesty was declared by the government on 16 December 1994, where no one would be prosecuted for handing in illegal firearms. Although the amnesty did not result in getting enough guns out of circulation, it succeeded in putting the issue of gun control on the agenda. It also led to the establishment of Gun Free SA in 1995.
The first years were spent trying to understand the issues and establish links with other organisations. It was during this time that the true extent of gun violence in SA became apparent: South Africa had the death profile of a country at war with more people being shot and killed than died on the country’s roads.
Yet legislation to control gun ownership, the Arms and Ammunition Act of 1969, was completely inadequate: 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.