James Saul Mokete Thaele: 1888 to 1948

Linguist, writer, political activist

James Saul Mokete Thaele was a multi-linguist and political leader who strongly opposed white supremacist beliefs and was key to building the ANC in the Winelands of the Cape.

James Saul Mokete Thaele was born in Quthing in Lesotho in 1888. After completing his schooling, he went to Lovedale where he studied languages for four years.

He emerged a multi-linguist and three years later, in 1913, he left for the United States of America where he lived and studied for a decade.

Thaele completed a BA in 1917 and Theology degree at Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University in 1921, which was regarded as a black university in America. It is no doubt Thaele was influenced by the Garveyism doctrine which was well reflected in his writings. He showed mistrust in white supremacy including the missionaries.

In the late 1920s he came back home to establish an African National Congress (ANC) branch in Cape Town with his brother Kennan in collaboration with Communists such as Elliot Tonjeni and Bransby Ndobe. With Thaele at the helm as President, the ANC’s influence in the Western Cape spread across wine-producing districts such as Swellendam and Worcester.

With the South African National Native Congress (SANNC) becoming the ANC in 1925 urban Africans intellectuals such as Thaele urged the government to stop using the term Native for Bantu or African or Negro people.


He was even awarded a title “professor” as a result of setting up a college in Cape Town all by himself and providing education to young Africans who wished to enrol for Junior Certificate and matriculation exams.


Thaele edited a short-lived newspaper, The African World and wrote articles for the Worker’s Herald. The latter was the organ of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Clements Kadalie. Thaele founded The African World which was the organ of the ANC in Cape Town. He partly funded the paper with money from his college.


Thaele was Marxist in orientation but had some criticisms of ‘organised communism’. This led to a split between him and Bransby Ndobe and Elliot Tonjeni. Eventually Ndobe and Toneni headed up the “independent ANC” in the rural areas while Thaele ran the ANC in Cape Town. For the next eight years Thaele remained President of the ANC in the Western Cape. He passed on in 1948, the year the National Party came to power on an apartheid ticket. He was 60.


Kemp, A.D. and Vinson, T.R. 2000. Poking Holes in the Sky: Professor James Thaele, American Negroes, Modernity in 1920s Segregationist South Africa. African Studies Review, 43(1): 141-159.

SAHO. 2015. James Thaele. Available at: http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/james-m-thaele-0.