From Cattle-herding to Editor’s Chair: The Unfinished Autobiography and Writings of Richard Victor Selope Thema

Edited by Alan Cobley

Review by Barend van der Merwe, published in “Historia” volume 62, no 2, November 2017, pp 144-146

Another milestone for the Van Riebeeck Society

The Van Riebeeck Society (VRS) plays a critical role by making primary sources of history available to the public. Established in August 1918, the society was founded “to print or reprint for distribution among the members, and for sale to the public, rare and valuable books, pamphlets and documents relating to the history of Southern Africa”. The publication of Richard Victor Selope Thema’s (1886–1955) autobiography and writings is another milestone for the society. According to Professor Howard Phillips, the chair of the VRS, the publication of Thema’s writings is “a companion piece to the volume published by the VRS in 2012, A.B. Xuma: Autobiography and Selected Works” (p iv) edited by Peter Limb. Dr Xuma (1893–1962) was not only a contemporary of Thema, but like Thema, he was also an author of note.

Thema’s autobiography occupies almost half of the volume, while the rest of the publication consists of newspaper articles written by him. He traces his biographical details back to his childhood in the village of Mafarana in the Tzaneen district where his community lived a “simple life worshipping the gods of their fathers” (p 2). The disruption of African communities as a result of the development of mining and the role of the missionaries naturally forms an important part of the narrative. Thema soon developed an interest in the Christian religion and he “secretly … belonged to it, although openly I pretended to be one of the upholders of the religion of our ancestors (pp 17–18). He attended the local community school, despite his mother’s fears that the influence of Western religion and education might have a negative influence on the community.

According to Thema, the South African War (1899–1902) was “the greatest disappointment of my early life” (p 21), because the conflict brought an end to his schooling. Despite his education being disrupted, he continued his studies at Lovedale and completed his matric in 1909. Thema left Lovedale in 1910, after being trained in shorthand, typewriting and office routine, to work as a teacher. He then worked in the offices of labour agents in what was then called Pietersburg (Polokwane). It was here that Thema’s involvement in politics began, and he became a member of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), the organisation which was renamed the African National Congress (ANC) in 1923.

Thema started his political career as secretary of the SANNC’s Pietersburg branch. By 1915 he was a prominent member of the organisation and was elected to serve as acting secretary general of the SANNC in the absence of Sol Plaatje who was in England during the First World War (1914–1918). Thema played an influential role in the SANNC in the decades that followed, contributing to the rise of the SANNC, but by the 1940s, with the establishment of the ANC Youth League, the organisation started to undergo radical change. According to Cobley the “tactics of rational discourse and engagement exemplified by Thema and his generation had patently failed to prevent the hardening of racist views among whites in the thirty-five years since the Congress had been founded” (p xxii).

Towards the end of his career, in the early 1950s, Thema took to mentoring Youth League leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo at secret meetings. However, despite Thema’s efforts to curb the rise of the armed struggle and the influence of communism on the ANC, the ANC was evolving in new ways beyond his control.

Apart from his role in politics, Thema was a prolific writer and his newspaper contributions on politics, which form the bulk of this publication, left a lasting legacy. According to Cobley, “in recent years there has been a growing awareness of his [Thema’s] equally important intellectual contribution to the development of African nationalism in South Africa (p xxiii). Research conducted by Professor Ntongela Masilela from Pitzer College in the United States of America, argues for Thema to be appreciated as “the leading African journalist and intellectual of his generation” (p xxiii). He is regarded as a critical commentator on the African experience of the time, and his contributions were published regularly in the leading African newspapers.

From Cattle-herding to Editor’s Chair is a significant publication because it makes the writings of a prominent early and long-serving member of the ANC accessible to the public. A welcome addition to this VRS volume is the inclusion of bound bookmarks, which make it easier for an individual reader to refer back to an item of particular interest. However, in the opinion of this reviewer, it is unfortunate that the name of Dutch colonist Jan Van Riebeeck (1619–1677), with its connotations to white supremacy, continues to be associated with the VRS. The name Van Riebeeck, which was considered a neutral name in 1918 when the VRS was founded, and was used as a compromise between VRS members with divided loyalties between the names of Kruger and Rhodes, has since become something of a burden, and to a certain degree undermines the work of the VRS. Given the fact that the VRS is in the process of changing the society’s name, it is unfortunate that this particular publication is published under the Van Riebeeck name. The VRS has repositioned itself in the democratic South Africa, and once the name change goes through, it will be in an even better position to promote the important work it is doing.

Barend van der Merwe

Khotso Flatela Northern Cape Provincial Archives