In many ways this volume is a companion piece to the volume published by the VRS in 2012, A.B. Xuma: Autobiography and Selected Works edited so ably by Peter Limb. Not only were Thema (1886-1955) and Xuma (1893-1962) near-contemporaries , but both of them achieved high office in the ANC before being ousted from leadership positions by an impatient and militant new generation of young men whom they had supported when they formed the ANC Youth League  in 1944. Xuma spoke of how these ‘Kindergarten Boys’ (Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu) had been ‘baptised and established by me and the late Mr. R.V. Selope Thema at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre in Johannesburg’

R V Selope Thema

R V Selope Thema as he appeared in Drum magazine’s “Masterpiece in Bronze” series in May 1953. The caption to be photograph read: “The most controversial man in Black Politics.”
(Source  Drum Social Histories Histories/Bailey’s African History Archive/Africa Media Online)

Unlike Xuma, however, Thema had been deeply involved in African politics in South Africa since his twenties, having been chosen as the first secretary of the fledgling ANC’s Pietersburg branch in 1912. As a result, this volume provides an authentic taste of the ideas and experiences of the first generation of modern African nationalists in the country, which is one of the great advantages of its inclusion of many of  Thema’s  newspaper articles from the 1920s and 1930s, unrevised in the light of hindsight. These culminate in his irate response to the 1936 Representation of the Natives Bill in a series of articles which bristle with cold anger. His deeds at that time echoed his words: Dr Xuma told of an interview which he and other African leaders had with the then prime minister, General Hertzog, in February 1936 on the Bill – ‘the Prime Minister extended his hand and shook my hand, exclaiming “Eh!” He did the same with Dr. J. S. Moroka and Dr. S. M. Molema, but when he came to Mr. R.V. Selope Thema, Mr. Thema bowed and would not extend [his hand] for a handshake’ (Peter Limb, The ANC’s Early Years)

Such indignation was not, however, the tone in which Selope Thema penned his ‘Autobiography’ which also forms part of this volume. Probably written in middle age, it is a work of rich, measured, mature and articulate reflection. Alas, it – like Dr Xuma’s autobiography – is unfinished, carrying the story of his life only to the early 1920s. Accordingly, a first-hand account of his years at the pinnacle of his journalistic career as the editor of Bantu World goes by default.

Dali Tambo with sculptor Cecilia Wilmot

We are told, of course, that half a loaf is better than no bread, so for his excellent kneading and baking of that half-loaf the VRS thanks the editor, Alan Cobley, profoundly. Without his initiative, enterprise and hard work (supplemented by the labours of our new copy editor, Linde Dietrich, and of our indexer, Ethleen Lastovica), a text identified by the VRS as worthy of publication over 20 years ago would still be on our list labelled ‘Manuscripts in search of an editor’.

Richard Victor Selope Thema (1886-1955) was one of the most influential black figures in South Africa in the twentieth century – yet he is largely forgotten today. This edited and annotated edition of his unpublished autobiography and selected other writings asserts his claim to a place in the pantheon of heroes of the black liberation struggle in South Africa.

Delegates at the Bantu Authors’ Conference Held at Florida (near Johannesburg on 14 October 1936

Back Row: Unidentified, Z D Mangaela(?), J D Rheinallt-Jones, Prof C M Doke
Middle Row: Margaret Wrong ,Prof D D T Jabavu, Rev R H W Shepherd, Edith Rheinallt-Jones, Thomas Mofol
Front Row: B W Vilakazi, H Dhlomo, R T Caluza?, R V S Thema, Unidentified

‘RV’ – as he was known to his friends – was a leading member of the ANC for almost forty years from 1912, serving for many years on its National Executive. He was also a founder member of the All-African Convention, an elected member of the Natives Representative Council (1937-1950), and was in constant demand to serve on deputations and committees as one of the leading spokespersons for Africans of his generation. Thema was also widely recognised as the leading black journalist and intellectual of his time. Many of his early writings appeared in the ANC newspaper, Abantu-Batho, but he cemented his national reputation as founding editor of Bantu World, a position he held for twenty years (1932-1952). Under his leadership, Bantu World became the leading organ of the black middle class in South Africa, and a generation of black writers launched their careers in its pages under his tutelage. It is still published today as Sowetan.

In his writings Thema was a tireless advocate of African rights and an implacable enemy of segregation. An ‘Africanist’ before that term was popularised by the Congress Youth League in the 1940s and 1950s, he can be considered an intellectual fore-father of both the Youth League and of the Pan-Africanists of the 1950s.

Selope Thema Primary School Orlando East, Soweto


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