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John James Issel (1946 - )

The Order of Luthuli in

John James Issel (1946 - ) Awarded for:
His outstanding contribution in the workers’, students’ and grassroots struggles against apartheid and for the development of the vision and formation of the United Democratic Front.

Profile of John James Issel

John James Issel was born on 17 August 1946 in the wine-growing area of Worcester outside Cape Town. At a tender age, he worked on a vineyard, cleaning grapes for the export market. It was during this time that he was introduced to a form of payment in cheap wine known as the “tot system”, which kept farm labourers in a constant state of numbness. Barely 13 years old and in short pants, he organised a strike against the low pay and he was chased, with a few others, at gunpoint off the farm. He had an all-round religious upbringing, enjoyed music and could play a variety of musical instruments.

During his latter school years, Issel’s mother moved to Johannesburg after which he ended up in Boksburg. The racism experienced in that mining town was even more blatant than that of the Boland. During his matric year, Issel became actively involved on the East Rand in the anti-apartheid Labour Party, contesting elections for the Coloured Representative Council.

Issel believed the church to be a conduit for justice and involved himself in various aspects of the church. He served as Sunday school teacher, church deacon and excelled as preacher. He sold radical tracts, issued by the Christian Institute in his new community, which was struggling to come to terms with their forced removal from Benoni, which had been declared an Indian area. After school, he worked at various factories for four years, mostly as a manual labourer, and obtained a university exemption certificate.

In 1970, Issel arrived at the University of the Western Cape (UCW), older than the average student. Despite his desperation to obtain a university qualification, he helped to organise a clandestine discussion group soon after his arrival. During his three years at UCW, he participated in most societies, which he thought could make a political contribution. He played a leading role in an anti-apartheid play by Adam Small.

During his final year at university, Issel joined the Black consciousness student movement, the South African Student Organisation (Saso), and was elected its first chairperson in the Western Cape. On being denied the right to study for an honours degree and after being expelled from the university, he was appointed the first regional secretary of Saso in the Western Cape.

From 1974 until 1986, he was imprisoned many times. He was held at many police stations, detained at various prisons, often in solitary confinement, including Athlone, Pollsmoor, Victor Verster and Kensington.

During the late eighties, Issel worked at the Food and Canning Workers Union .In 1980, he was appointed first organiser for the broad based community newspaper, Grassroots, and he participated in the formation of a number of extra-parliamentary organisations involving women, residents, as well as secular and church youth. At the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983, he played a leading role in its establishment and the subsequent formation of UDF structures within the Western Cape.

After the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, John James Issel was appointed onto the interim provincial committee and became its first full-time regional organiser. His primary task was to spearhead the formation of ANC branches in the Western Cape. Following the first democratic election in 1994, he became a member of the Western Cape Legislature, representing the African National Congress. During his time at the legislature, he chaired the committee overseeing the work of the police.

Johnny Issel rose from humble, obscure and politically suffocating conditions to challenge the political establishment nationally, arousing political awareness, whether at work, at educational institutions or on a broader societal level. An unsung hero, he is one of scores of South Africans who made huge contributions to the anti-apartheid struggle without seeking glory or attention.