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 from the farm at gunpoint, with a few others. Issel 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 a Sunday school teacher, church deacon and excelled as a 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 obtained a university exemption certificate, but worked at various factories for four years, mostly as a manual labourer. 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 UWC, 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.
When Steve Biko and Barney Pityana led black students out of the predominantly white National Union of Students in 1969, Issel joined a delegation of students from UWC to meet them in Durban. 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. In 1973 Issel, along with Biko, Pityana and other SASO leaders, was issued with his first five-year banning order. Two more were to follow.
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. In October 1974 he was detained under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act after SASO had marked the independence of Mozambique by launching countrywide pro-Frelimo rallies. Issel and the other detained SASO leaders were sent to Pretoria. After six months in Pretoria Central he was released but the torture he endured, including electric shock, scarred him emotionally for life. 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. Eight months after Grassroots was launched, he was banned. Issel participated in the formation of a number of extra-parliamentary organisations involving women, residents, as well as secular and church youth.
Issel and Trevor Manuel (former Minister of Finance) were the two delegates from the Western Cape who travelled to Johannesburg to discuss the launch of the United Democratic Front (UDF) with activists from Durban and Johannesburg. At this meeting, Durban, Johannesburg and even Port Elizabeth were considered for the launch of the UDF. In a desperate attempt to secure the launch of the UDF for Cape Town, Issel offered to work fulltime on the launch. That, somehow, seemed to sway the house. When asked whether he could guarantee an attendance of at least six thousand people at the launch, he said: “Yes” - Cape Town had won the launch. Issel played a leading role in the establishment of the UDF in 1983 and the subsequent formation of UDF structures within the Western Cape.
After the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1990, Issel was appointed to 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 Provincial Legislature, representing the ANC, between 1994 and 1996. During his time at the legislature, he chaired the committee overseeing the work of the police. He then left the Provincial Legislature and went into business and thereafter went to Europe for a few years. On 21 March 2007 (Human Rights Day), Issel was awarded the Order of the Disa, Officer Class, Western Cape Provincial Honours Awards by the then Premier of the Western Cape, Ibrahim Rassool. According to his daughter Leila Issel - Davids, he refused to accept this award given to him by Rasool, then Premier of the Western Cape. On 24 April 2007, the President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki conferred the Companion of the Order of Luthuli in Bronze to Issel. Issel was a member of the uMkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans' Association (MKMVA). Issel passed away on 23 January 2011.
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