Ivan Toms was born in Cape Town, Western Province (now Western Cape) on 11 July 1953. He completed his medical degree at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 1976. This was followed by a year-long medical internship at Kimberley Hospital, Northern Cape. In 1978, Toms was conscripted to serve in the South African Defence Force (SADF).
Although vehemently opposed to the then South African Defence Force (SADF), leaving South Africa was never an option for him. After consultation with Archbishop Denis Hurley, he decided to do his national service, as a non-combatant doctor. He spent six months in Namibia in this capacity.
Toms attended the South African Christian Leadership Assembly (SACLA) in Pretoria, Transvaal (now Gauteng). After this he set up a clinic in Crossroads, an informal settlement 15 km outside Cape Town. At the time, the people of Crossroads had no access to health facilities. Together with the Rev David Russell, Toms set up the Empilisweni SACLA Clinic Committee with residents of Crossroads and Rev John Freeth of the St John's Parish, Wynberg, Cape Town. He was the sole doctor caring for the 60000 inhabitants at this settlement.
In September 1983, a three-week confrontation erupted between the Crossroads community and Administration Board officials and police as a result of the erection of 'illegal structures' by residents. 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. He was a founder member and leader of the End Conscription Campaign (ECC), a movement that opposed compulsory conscription of White South African males for military training. In 1985, Toms fasted for three weeks in Cape Town’s St George’s Cathedral in support of the Campaign’s call for troops not to be deployed in Black townships.
In February 1985, the Apartheid Government decided to forcibly remove the Crossroads settlement, resulting in intense unrest and 18 deaths and 178 injuries. Toms and the Empilisweni SACLA 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. Toms and the SACLA team turned the takeover into an opportunity by training and extending support to 150 community health workers.
In July 1987, Toms defied a one-month SADF camp conscription, consequently suffering intense victimisation at the hands of the SADF. A public trial ensued during which Toms's sexual orientation was also questioned. His lawyer [now Judge], Edwin Cameron, called the Anglican Bishop David Russell to testify on Toms's behalf. The Bishop endorsed Toms's fight against racial oppression and homophobia. On 3 March 1988, Toms was sentenced to 21 months’ imprisonment. He served nine months in Pollsmoor Prison as a 'criminal' prisoner, after which he was released on bail.
Tom’s was also a co-founder of Lesbians and Gays against Oppression, which by 1988 had been renamed as the Organisation of Lesbian and Gay Activists (OLGA).
That same year, Toms was invited to the International Conference on Children, Repression and the Law in Apartheid South Africa, in Harare, Zimbabwe, to talk about his experiences in Crossroads. In 1991, Toms became national co-ordinator of the National Progressive Primary Healthcare Network (NPPHN) responsible for developing a national AIDS programme. In 1993, he became 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. Toms was appointed Director of City Health of Cape Town in 2002, a position he still holds today.
In 2006, the South African Government conferred The Order of the Baobab in Bronze for his outstanding contribution to the struggle against Apartheid and sexual discrimination.
Dr Ivan Toms passed away on 25 March 2008, in Mowbray, Cape Town, of natural causes.