Selfless. Brave. Inspirational. These were some of the words used to describe anti-Apartheid activist and African National Congress (ANC) stalwart, Johnny Issel, who died of heart failure on Sunday. He was laid to arrest in Athlone on Monday morning. Fellow freedom fighters were at the burial service, recalling their fondest memories of their comrade, who fought for freedom and human rights until the very end.
Judge Siraj Desai knew Issel as both a client and an activist. “I met him [Issel] at a time when this country needed brave individuals,” said Desai. “He was an outstandingly brave individual in the struggle against Apartheid.” Desai said that Issel’s struggle extended beyond Apartheid in South Africa.
“Despite the advent of the new South Africa, he never gave up the struggle to seek a better future. Not only in South Africa, but throughout the world.” Desai recalled that some months ago he was approached by Issel about finding means of assisting Palestinians in a similar struggle non-white South Africans experienced before 1990. “That was his vision for all of mankind,” added Desai.
Dr Allan Boesak expressed his sadness at the loss of his friend, describing Issel as noble in every sense of the word. “Johnny was the personification of all that was noble in our struggle,” said Boesak. “The pain that he felt was always the pain on behalf of others. He never looked for his own comfort. He was an amazing example for us.”
Boesak said he hoped that the generations after Issel would follow in the same footsteps. “I can just hope that in this new generation that follows that there will be people that will pick up that mantle and who will follow that example and will accept that kind of life for others, because that is the kind of life that brought South Africa to where we are today.”
Boesak said that he was still seeing hardships experienced by ordinary South Africans which Issel fought so hard against. “I know that the things he struggled for, many of us continue to see and the one thing we can promise Johnny’s memory is that we will not stop until all of the ideals are fulfilled and until all those dreams have been made a reality. That’s the least we can do to honour him.”
Minister in the Presidency, Trevor Manuel, who played a leading role in the birth of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983 along with Issel, said Issel’s struggle during the dark days of Apartheid displayed great bravery. “He was brave in the face of whatever the Apartheid regime would throw at him such as the number of times he was detained in various prisons across the country, the number of times he was shot at, the amount of torture he endured, separation from his family, banning orders … nothing would stand in the way of Johnny and his firm conviction,” said Manuel, adding that the impact Issel had on people made them want to do things for him.
“When people were asked to do things especially by somebody of the caliber of Johnny they were willing to do it. It’s almost impossible to understand the politics of the Western Cape from the period of silence under Apartheid to the awakening of the people without understanding the important role that Johnny played,” added Manuel.