Teacher, member of the South African Coloured People’s Congress and MK, ANC, Robben Island prisoner.
Lives of Courage
James April was born in 1940, in Bokmakeri, Cape Town, Western Province (now Western Cape).
He is the youngest of seven children. His father was a labourer, while his mother stayed at home to care for the family.
April’s father was a very politically conscious person. He was a supporter of Communism and used to attend political rallies at the Grand Parade, Cape Town in the 1940s.
Due to the financial situation of the family, all of his siblings were forced to go to work after Standard Six (Grade Eight). He completed his primary schooling in the Athlone area, Cape Town and then went to Alexandra Secondary High. Following this, he went to the University of Cape Town for two years in 1958, where he enrolled for a BA.
Influenced, politically, by teachers who were members of the Teachers League of South Africa (TLSA) and the Cape African Teachers Association (CATA) as well as Jewish Socialists teaching at Coloured schools, April became active in civic work and was instrumental in forming parent-teacher associations while studying to being a teacher. April did not complete his studies due to his political involvement. He then went to work at various companies.
The first campaign that he was involved in was the separate election campaign in 1958, to elect White parliamentary representatives for Coloureds, which the South African Coloured People’s Organisation (SACPO) resolved to boycott.
He joined the South African Coloured People’s Congress (SACPC) in 1961. The SACPC was formed because people considered the SACPO, founded by Alex la Guma, Richard van der Ross and others, to be a weak and ineffective organisation. April became the secretary of the Athlone, Cape Town branch. Most of the political work they did centred on organising and mobilising people around day to-day issues.
By this time, Barney Desai was the Vice President and Reggie September was Secretary of SACPC. They worked closely with people from the African National Congress (ANC) and distributed the progressive left wing paper, New Age.
By the 1960s when people like Desai and September either were in prison or had left the country, April and others took over the executive and the SACPC met in secret.
April, together with Basil February, was first arrested in 1962 for painting slogans, and was held in Roeland Street Prison, Cape Town. After they were released on bail, they were again arrested at random because of some act of sabotage that took place in the Cape Town area.
In 1962, he attended a military training camp held at Mamre, Cape Province held by some political activists. Although it was scheduled to be a ten day camp. the police arrived after four days and arrested some of the people at the camp. Two of the key people at this camp were Denis Goldberg and Looksmart Solwande Ngudle.
In 1963, April and other activists, were arrested again for painting slogans. He was also charged for furthering the aims of an illegal organisation as he was found to be in possession of some illegal documents - how to organise and mobilise politically, and other similar documents.
He was charged and spent time in prison while he awaited trial. He appeared twice in court, and together with Basil February was charged for sabotage arising from the 1962 Mamre camp incident.
After they were released on bail from prison they were advised by their advocate, Albie Sachs, to remain in the country and serve their time in prison instead of going into exile, which would have a bad effect on the morale of the people.
When they appeared in court again, February received a fine; apparently, he had made a very good speech and impressed the magistrate. The magistrate said that because of his youth he had to pay the cost of cleaning the slogans, which they had painted.
April remained in prison for another two months awaiting trial until early in 1964 when he was formally charged. By this time some of the ANC people, who were at the Mamre camp, had already left the country.
Thus, April and February decided to leave the country. A shop owner, Abbas Gadief, a member of the Cape Indian Congress gave them the train-fare to leave for Johannesburg. Altogether four of them, Kenny Jordan, a person called Army,” February and April left for Johannesburg in April 1964.
After a few days hiding at various places in Johannesburg, they were driven to Zeerust. Since none of them had passports, they travelled by bus to Mopane and then walked the rest of the way across the border, in darkness, to Lobatse, Bechuanaland (now Botswana).
Fish Keitsing from the ANC received them in Lobatse. The next day they went to Francistown by train, where they stayed in a refugee camp for a few weeks while transport was being organised.
From here, they travelled to Livingstone, Zambia and then were taken to Lusaka where Tennyson Makiwane met them. They then made their way to Dar-es-Salaam.
Here he underwent a rigorous military commander training in arms, explosives and other such areas as well as political science - the fundamentals of Marxism and the national democratic struggle.
At this time, April took on his mother’s maiden surname Brian and changed his name to George Brian.
Upon completion of his training, the group returned to Dar-es-Salaam for a short while before they were sent to Kongwa, Tanzania, which was a base camp.
This group was called together to discuss the Wankie Campaign to prepare to travel south. The plan was for two groups to go, one to the east and the other to the south to infiltrate into South Africa. Chris Hani and the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) group were going to the south.
April was tried in the Pietermaritzburg Supreme Court in May 1971 on four counts under the Terrorism Act. Among the charges was that between December 1970 and February 1971 he entered South Africa illegally in possession of materials to establish a system of secret communication. April was held in solitary confinement from his arrest in February 1971 until his trial in May 1971. He was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment, which he served on Robben Island.
A secret witness who claimed to have been a “deserter” from the guerilla fighters gave most of the State’s evidence in the trial. In a statement to the court, April admitted the allegations against him because he believed that he was right in doing what he did.
In August 2012, the Department of Defence and Military Veterans hosted its first medals parade for MK in Bloemfontein. James April received a gold medal for bravery – the highest honour a soldier can receive – for his role in defending his unit, against enemy fire, on the banks of the Zambezi River, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) that night.
James April, now lives in Cape Town.
• IDAF Prisoners of Apartheid: a biographical list of political prisoners and banned persons in South Africa, London, IDAF with UN Centre against Apartheid, 1978
• Smith J. (2012). Honour for unsung heroes of MK’s military campaign from The Star, 2 August online. Available at www.iol.co.za. Accessed 9 April 2013.