1886 – 1955
Most influential figure in ANCs infancy
Kwa-Thema in Springs is named after him, as is a school in Soweto. RV Selope Thema was arguably the most influential figure in the early years of the ANC. His early radical views eventually transformed into a more moderate worldview.
The multi-talented Richard Victor Selope Thema plied his trade as a journalist, author, teacher and a politician and was probably the most influential figure in the ANC’s infancy years.
Thema was known as an exceptional orator and shifted from a generally radical approach to a more moderate worldview later in his life. He was a pacifist who believed that any conflict can be resolved if two parties sit together, hear each other and talk to each other.
He proposed this route for resolving conflict at a time when Africans sought self-determination in the face of exclusion by the Union of 1910.
Selope Thema, a Mopedi ethnic was born in 1886 in Ga-Mamabolo near Polokwane, formerly known as Pietersburg. He was exposed to a poverty-stricken childhood but he did not let his background stand in his way to success.
His parents did not convert to Christianity, as people from Ga-Mamabolo did, but gave him their blessings and enrolled him into missionary schools. Unlike his parents, who were not originally from Ga-Mamabolo, the Mamabolo clan were Christians due to their early contact with the missionaries.
He resumed schooling in 1903 after his return from joining the British troops in the Anglo-Boer War in 1901. After the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed, he worked in Pretoria as a waiter in a boarding house and at the Imperial Military Railway Dispensary. In 1904 he was assigned to establish a school near his parents’ home.
Selope Thema studied at Lovedale Institution in Alice in the Eastern Cape in 1906 until he obtained his Junior Certificate in 1907 and became a qualified teacher. From the end of 1910 he headed back home to teach in Pietersburg district for a year and then worked as a clerk at the Pietersburg mine recruiting office from 1911 until 1914.
When he was 29, in 1915, he went to Johannesburg to work for the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) leader and attorney, Richard Msimang.
Msimang headed a committee that drafted the constitution of the SANNC with Thema acting as a secretary on the committee. This was an opportunity for Thema to get his head around the affairs of the Congress. That same year he was elected provincial secretary of the Transvaal branch of SANNC.
Herbert Msane, the son of Saul Msane, introduced him to the Bantu Debating Union and Abantu-Batho. In 1915 he wrote for Abantu-Batho about the unjust pass laws. In 1916 during the First World War (1914-1918) when Plaatje left for England, Selope Thema became assistant general secretary of Transvaal Native Congress (TNC). Around the same time he also served as the secretary general of SANNC, Transvaal branch. In 1919, still a secretary general, he signed the TNC constitution that specified Abantu-Batho as its official organ.
In his unpublished autobiography he emphasised, “[Abantu-Batho] helped me in my journalistic endeavour and made it possible for me to express my views on questions that affected the African.” The paper helped build his political and journalism career. After returning to South Africa from London where he had studied Journalism at the London school of Journalism, he became the subeditor of Abantu-Batho in the beginning of 1920.
While in London he had worked as secretary of SANNC delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference as well as the British government to petition for a just dispensation for Africans. Thereafter he abandoned his radicalism and resorted to moderate liberalism. In one of the pieces written in 1935 he was even described as “a radical writer who called a spade a spade”, wrote Limb.
Thema later wrote for a moderate publication, Umtetheli, as a correspondent, and started to edit a newly founded black newspaper Bantu World for 20 years until he retired in 1952.
The Bantu World under Thema’s editorship was like a political education school for Africans living in the urban areas. It informed them about the ANC in detail. It also set a stage for Thema to make public his conservatively moderate political views.
He co-authored a chapter with Rheinaullt Jones titled: “Thinking with Africa: Chapters by a Group of Nationals Interpreting the Christian Movement” published in New York in 1927.
As a leader, Thema received invites from the government during the 1920s to form part of the conference organised under Native Affairs Act no.23 of 1920 to table African concerns. As a result, he headed and found the Johannesburg Joint Council of Europeans and Bantus. The Joint Council was an umbrella organisation for all races in South Africa at that time. But the ANC did not endorse the Council although its aim was to attend to the grievances of Africans.
He also founded National Minded Bloc, a go-between conservative faction that was against the alliance between the ANC and the South African Community Party (SACP). He took this conservative position when JB Marks became the provincial president of the ANC in the Transvaal.
In December 1935 he went to Bloemfontein and became one of the organisers of the All Africans Convention (AAC), as an executive member. Like Levi Thomas Mvabaza, he helped save the ANC from collapsing under the leadership of Pixley ka Isaka Seme.
Fourteen years later, in 1949 he served as a speaker of the ANC under the leadership of President-General Dr AB Xuma. He however, didn’t return to the position after Xuma lost the elections to Dr James Moroka.
He served in the governing body of his alma mater – for a long time. He was married to Phillipine Mapule Chide and they had a daughter and a son. When he passed on in 1955, aged 69, he was buried in Croesus Cemetery in Newclare, Johannesburg. Kwa-Thema, a township outside Springs was named after him as well as Selope Thema Community School in Orlando East.
Christison G, 2012. ‘We of Abantu-Batho’: Robert Grendon’s Brief and Controversial Editorship. In: Limb, P. 2012. The People’s Paper: A Centenary History and Anthology of Abantu-Batho. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, pp.151-173.
Lowe, C. 2012. The Swazi Royalty and the Founding of Abantu-Batho in a Regional Context. In: Limb, P. 2012. The People’s Paper: A Centenary History and Anthology of Abantu-Batho. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, pp.
South African History Online Available. Richard Victor Selope Thema. at: http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/richard-victor-selope-thema. Accessed on 12 June 2015.