Ryland Fisher
Ryland Fisher

Johnny Issel: What he meant to me

The first thing I did when I heard last Sunday that Johnny Issel had passed away was to listen to my vinyl of Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier. I thought it appropriate because this was the theme song of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in the early 1980s and Issel was a founder member.

As I listened to Marley singing about “If you know your history / Then you would know where you coming from / Then you wouldn’t have to ask me / Who the heck do you think I am” I could hear the voices of Kay Jaffer and Mike Evans urging people to attend the UDF rally in Rocklands, Mitchells Plain, on August 20 1983.

I found myself reflecting on what John James “Yacoub” Issel (born August 17 1946, died January 23 2011) meant to me and many others of my generation. But I also found myself thinking about the significance of the 1970s and 1980s and the impact of those two decades.

Issel was a larger-than-life character in many ways. He was the founder of the UDF, even though he was banned at the time (like he was for most of the 1970s and 1980s) but he was so much more.

Most of the people who joined the struggle in the Western Cape in the 1970s and 1980s were influenced in some way or other by Issel.

It would take a book to list properly Issel’s involvement and achievements in struggle, and a newspaper article has serious limitations in this regards. So, very briefly:

Issel was born in Worcester and came to study at the University of the Western Cape in 1969 at the age of 23 after he had worked to earn money to study. He joined the South African Students Organisation and very soon became immersed in the work of black consciousness organisations, where he interacted with people like Steve Bantu Biko and Peter Jones.

He later joined the Food and Canning Workers Union where he worked with legends like Oscar Mpetha, Jan Theron and Elizabeth “Nana” Abrahams.

But it was in the 1980s that Issel’s contribution to the struggle had the most impact. He started the decade as founder and organiser of Grassroots community newspaper. Organiser was a strange title for the person who was in charge, but we were very sensitive about titles in those days and CEO, managing director or even executive director would have been a bit of a swearword, especially at an anti-capitalist organisation.

Issel was involved in most if not all of the progressive formations in the Western Cape. He played a role in the formation of the Cape Youth Congress, the Rocklands Ratepayers Association, the Cape Areas Housing Action Committee, the Clothing Workers’ Union, the End Conscription Campaign and two organisations targeting the white community at the time, the Cape Democrats and Jews for Justice. He also worked at some point for the Churches Urban Planning Commission and helped to establish 25 advice offices throughout the Western Cape. Many of those advice offices still exist.

Issel also played a key role in campaigns such as the red meat boycott and the schools boycotts in 1980, several strike support committees throughout the 1980s, the march to Pollsmoor in 1985 to demand the release of Nelson Mandela, and the Save the Press Campaign in the late 1980s.

But while he was promoting legal opposition to the apartheid regime, Issel also played a major role in popularising the ANC in the Western Cape and in South Africa while the organisation was banned.

He was the key driver behind the first public unfurling of the ANC flag at Hennie Ferrus’s funeral in Worcester, which was soon followed by more public displays of the ANC flag. At this time, one could be jailed for at least five years for possessing, let alone displaying, an ANC flag.

When the ANC was unbanned in the early 1990s, it was almost logical that Issel should be appointed as its Western Cape organiser. This time the title organiser was appropriate, because the ANC hoped to tap into his considerable experience of organising communities.

He later became a member of the provincial legislature, before bowing out to join a private company. Later on he left the country, disillusioned with the state of the nation. He only returned a few years ago after suffering a stroke in London.

In the early eighties I was a young reporter at the Cape Herald newspaper, which was owned by the then Argus Group and which targeted the coloured community. One of the first times I met Issel was at a meeting where the Writers Association of South Africa decided to become the Media Workers Association of South Africa, something Issel encouraged.

A few years later Issel and Rashid Seria, who fluctuated between journalism, business and politics, convinced me to leave the Cape Herald, where I was earning a fairly decent salary to go and work for Grassroots for about a fifth of what I was earning.

This was one of the best and worst career decisions I had taken, because, while I was taking a serious cut in salary and leaving the mainstream environment for a “struggle job”, I learnt much more at Grassroots than I would have learnt at the Cape Herald, not only about journalism but about dealing with people.

But Issel influenced me in other ways too. I was a founder executive member of the Cape Youth Congress and remember Issel putting me and other Cayco executive members through three-hour Saturday morning political education classes where we discussed in-depth the writings of people such as Marx, Lenin and Gramsci.

Issel was far from a perfect human being, even though he was remarkable in many ways. His relationship with his family was rocky at times and he had two failed marriages. He was also headstrong and had little patience for people who shied away from working during the struggle. Somehow he managed to get most of us to do things that we would not normally have done.

Attending Issel’s funeral on Monday and interacting with a range of former activists from the 1970s and 1980s this week, I realised that those two decades had a major impact on many political activists, in the same way as they had a major impact on the history of our country.

I found myself thinking about why so many of us look back fondly especially on the 1980s as an exciting period in our lives from which we can learn many lessons for today.

I wondered why someone like former cabinet minister Jay Naidoo wrote an autobiography which focused mainly on his trade union days in the 1980s. I wondered why at Issel’s memorial service in St George’s Cathedral on Thursday night, there was so much focus on his activities in the 1980s and not in the last 20 years or so.

Maybe it is because the 1980s was the final decade of apartheid and there is a feeling that the role played by people inside the country in ending apartheid has not been acknowledged enough?

Maybe we are trying to send a message to the current leadership of our country that there were leaders in the 1980s who had different values, who were committed to the struggle to liberate our nation, because they were committed to the upliftment of all our people.

Maybe all of us are trying to reclaim our struggle credentials and the integrity and moral high ground that come with those credentials.

But maybe it is true that we did things differently in the 1980s. We organised communities along non-racial lines and it was not unusual for groups of volunteers from all over the Western Cape to descend on specific communities on Saturdays or Sundays and knock on people’s doors to talk to them about the struggle.

It was not unusual for coloured communities to show solidarity with African communities and vice versa.

In some weird way, race has become a much bigger divisive factor, especially in the Western Cape.

Maybe Issel’s passing is a reminder of the non-racial society that we fought for passionately in the 1980s and which we still hope to achieve.

(This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus on Saturday January 29 2011.)