On the battlefield of Solferino, Henry Dunant, struck by the insufficiency of Medical Services, the great number of soldiers who died for lack of care and the vast suffering that could have been avoided, conceived the great project of forming “relief Societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in war-time by zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified volunteers”.

To overcome the misgivings voiced by various senior military officers, who were concerned about civilians being given access to the battlefield, it was decided that Voluntary Medical personnel would be “placed under military command” (Resolution 6 of the 1863 Geneva International Conference). As they were then acting under military discipline, and were placed on the same footing as the army medical services, it was secondary whether or not they kept their status as civilians; being officially authorised, they were entitled to the same protection as military medical personnel.

Although the first Red Cross volunteers worked on or close to the battlefields, they are now also present at the scene of natural disasters and in everyday life; performing a host of medical and social welfare tasks. This was a natural development, stemming from the history of the Movement and its tradition of pioneering in the humanitarian field.

The International Committee of the Red Cross was formed in 1863 and is the founding body of the movement. Under the terms of the Geneva Conventions, it undertakes the role of neutral intermediary in times of armed conflict, providing protection and assistance to victims, visiting detainees, providing medical care to the sick and wounded, tracing and reuniting separated families.



The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies was founded in 1919 in Paris in the aftermath of World War I. Originally known as the League of Red Cross Societies it was renamed in October 1983 as the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. In November 1991 it became the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The Federation supports humanitarian activities by Red Cross in each country, including providing emergency relief for natural disasters, the development of new social welfare initiatives, caring for refugees and simply caring for the vulnerable in society.



On New Year’s Day, 1896, four doctors approached President Paul Kruger for permission to form an ambulance corps. President Kruger not only gave the doctors his personal blessing, but his Volksraad also made a grant of 500 pounds for equipment, considered a most generous contribution in those days.

Six months later the Government of the South African Republic signed the Geneva Convention, and the ambulance corps took steps to become an independent Red Cross Society, Het Transvaalsche Roode Kruis. During 1899, a National Society was formed in the Orange Free State Republic, and later that year a British Red Cross Society branch was established in the Cape Colony.

From its earliest beginnings in South Africa, the Red Cross made no distinction between frontiers, race or political creed. During the South African War (1899 – 1902) the Society expanded rapidly, receiving aid from the Red Cross in the Netherlands, Germany, Britain, Belgium, Russia and Canada. Their common purpose was to relive the suffering of the wounded, sick combatants, regardless of who they were fighting for and to pass on information regarding persons killed, wounded or captured.

With the return of peace in 1902, the Red Cross Movement in South Africa became dormant until it was revived in 1913, when its objectives included spreading knowledge of first aid, home nursing and hygiene, as well as carrying out relief work for the injured, sick and wounded.

The South African Red Cross Society itself was founded in 1921 with the amalgamation of the various Red Cross entities which existed in the country. It was recognised by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1928 and admitted into the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in 1929.

Over the years, the work of the Red Cross in South Africa has changed to reflect the environment in which it is working. The National Society is organized into five regions under the control of elected National Council. Each region has several branch offices and which in turn have several committees with representation from the communities.

As a vitally important partner in this country’s health and welfare network, its principle concerns can be summarised in one sentence: to encourage and promote the improvement of health, the prevention of disease and the mitigation of suffering.

The South African Red Cross Society is one of the 189 members of the Federation and responds to needs in each province, territory and provides relief during minor and major disasters and emergencies throughout South Africa.