Man of principle who walked talk

News of the death of 69-year-old Alice-born veteran trade unionist and ANC stalwart Boyce Soci has shocked the Eastern Cape struggle community.

“Bra Benz” Soci was a towering figure in the politics of the province at the time when the apartheid state and its homeland puppets were escalating their repression in the Border area. He located himself very quickly at the centre of that conflict.

He played a crucial role in the intensification of the liberation struggle when he moved to Port Elizabeth in the early 1980s. He was always happy to directly confront the dreaded police security branch.

Soci was never welcomed with the fanfare reserved for heroes who came from a long drawn battle. We saw him operating alongside us as if he had always been with us.

What was known about him was scant, other than that he was battle-scarred from his involvement and participation in the marathon Wilson Rowntree strike of 1981 and the Ciskei bus boycott of 1983.

Somewhat older than many of my comrades in the Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage area, Soci became a central point for those who believed and practised strict Marxist codes of conduct. He was one person who professed to be a communist and was widely admired because he lived what he preached – as a communist and a warrior of the working class.

In the turbulent mid-1970s up to the end of the 1980s, scores of people claimed to be Marxists, yet their behaviour was a signpost pointing in the opposite direction – they did not walk their talk. Soci however, made Marxism acceptable even to those who did not subscribe to it.

According to ANC veteran and stalwart Africa Maqolo, Soci was an influential unionist leader in the Eastern Cape at the time of his arrival in Port Elizabeth, and due to his exemplary conduct as a strong working class leader, was accorded huge respect across the board. Maqolo said the arrival of Soci amongst the militant and radical youth of Port Elizabeth “shaped the tempo, scale and pace of the struggle”. The politics of resistance in the Eastern Cape were, says Maqolo, still shaped by the philosophy of black consciousness, a flow over from the 1976 student uprising.

Soci provided desperately needed “ideological clarity” for the youth, especially in those trying times of the 1980s, Maqolo recalls.

Vusumzi Matikinca, one of the enduring leaders of the 1976 uprising and now a practising lawyer in Johannesburg, remembers Soci as follows: “I knew comrade Soci relatively well from Mdantsane during my visits there. This was before he moved to PE where he became a union activist, before and during the buildup to the formation of Cosatu in 1985. Although he was much older than our generation, he interacted with us as equals, politically and otherwise”.

Soci arrived in Port Elizabeth at a time when solidarity between the activists of the Border area and the Eastern Cape was at its highest. That solidarity was built around the time of the strike led by the SA Allied Workers Union (Saawu) against the British-owned company Wilson Rowntree, of 1979 to 1983.

In those days Saawu’s heavyweights included Captain Ngabase, Jeff Wabhena, Sisa Njikelana and others, who frequented PE to garner support for the strike.

Thozi Maneli, a skilful young trade unionist from the Saawu stable, was permanently stationed in PE, mobilising moral and material support.

At the time the Congress of South African Students activists had dubbed Maneli Saawu’s “roving ambassador – at large”. The security police hated him and used every blackmailing tactic possible against him. Nothing worked against that comrade. Soci arrived after Maneli, entering the political scene ostensibly as a trade union organiser. With the arrival of Soci around 1983, the independent and progressive trade unions gravitated very fast towards community- based organisations. This strategic move, by people like Soci, of refusing to divorce factory struggles from the community’s daily problems, assisted in very quickly building the platform for mass mobilisation that was to follow. Soci’s message was easily and quickly received by the strong and militant youth formation, Peyco (Port Elizabeth Youth Congress).

Mthwabo Ndube, then secretary of Peyco says, “Comrade Soci was the most versatile comrade that I have ever seen. He operated on every level of the struggle, true to his communist values and principles. Soci believed that the people were the crown jewel of the struggle”.

Ndube, who became involved in the underground activities at the insistence of Soci, found himself in Lesotho, among giants such as Chris Hani, Tony Yengeni, Humphrey Maxhegwana and others.

All of that was meant to consolidate the relationship between those in the internal and external struggles so as to avoid ideological deviations.

Soci was strongly influenced by the South African Congress of Trade Union’s objective, though this organisation was banned a long time beforehand. He kept close contact with it and worked towards influencing other unions to adopt a militant and radical political approach against the racist apartheid regime. Soci believed various struggle formations had to unite, hence he was happy to work with workers, youths, cultural, religious, sports and many other groups. During the Black Weekend total shutdown of 1985, Soci was one of the few unionists who stuck his neck out, supporting the boycott and strike.

He will be buried at Twecu village near East London tomorrow. He is survived by his wife Nothembile, daughter, Phumla and brother Mitchell. Hamba kakuhle Msebenzi.

Mkhuseli Khusta Jack is a longstanding Eastern Cape political activist

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