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Richard Selope Thema (1886 – 1955) (Posthumous)

The Order of Ikhamanga in

Richard Selope Thema (1886 – 1955) (Posthumous) Awarded for:
His exceptional contribution to the advancement of African people through the field of journalism and fighting for the attainment of a free, just and democratic South Africa.
Pofile of Richard Victor Selope Thema

The independent-minded intellectual, journalist and liberation-movement pioneer, Richard Victor Selope Thema, was born on a Pietersburg farm in 1886. Like many of his generation, Thema was denied provision of compulsory education and driven to fulfil his potential through sheer will and force of talent. He rose from humble village beginnings to national prominence as a leader of the African people and a journalist and intellectual of repute.

Thema’s early education at a mission school was interrupted during the Anglo-Boer South African War and he was compelled to work as a railways labourer. By the time he resumed his studies in 1903, he was able to attend a state school for Africans up to the third standard.

Thema went on to achieve his junior certificate in 1907 through the Lovedale Missionary College in the Eastern Cape before completing his matriculation qualification on a Hutton scholarship. After working as a teacher in his home town and as a clerk at a mine-recruiting corporation, Thema moved to Johannesburg where he found work in the offices of attorney Richard W Msimang in 1915.

Msimang then led a committee tasked with drafting a new constitution for the South African Native National Congress, the precursor to the African National Congress (ANC). Thema served as secretary to the committee. He became very knowledgeable about the workings of the organisation and excelled in his dedication to its cause, becoming secretary of the Transvaal branch of the organisation and then its national Secretary-General from 1915 to 1917.

Thema often deputised for Solomon Plaatje while the latter was in Europe during the First World War.

In 1919, Thema was a member of the deputation to Britain and the League of Nations that sought to advance the rights of Africans. While in England, he undertook a course in journalism, becoming sub-editor of the congress newspaper Abantu Batho on his return and a correspondent for Umteteleli wa Bantu.

As a correspondent and columnist, Thema led African intellectual thought in defining and advancing modern African identity, believing modernity to be the basis for overcoming European domination. In this, Thema also promoted the role of newspapers in the realisation of African intellectual history.

Thema was influenced in this as a teenager when he encountered Elijah Makiwane who came to the then Northern Transvaal to preach Christianity and modernity. In 1925, Thema was appointed secretary of the Johannesburg Joint Council, a multiracial organisation established to make representations to the authorities on the living conditions of African people. In 1932, Thema assumed the editorship of Bantu World until his retirement in 1952, positioning the newspaper as an historic institution in the social and political life of urban black South Africa up until its banning as The World in the mid-1970s.

Before this, Thema was superintendent of the Bantu Men’s Social Centre, which added vibrancy to black arts and scholarship.

In 1935, Thema was a founding member of the All African Convention (AAC), an umbrella body that included the ANC, the Communist Party of South Africa and the Industrial Commercial Workers Union that resisted the enactment of draconian bills, including the Land Act and the pass laws.

Thema participated in a number of government conferences to discuss the position of African people. In 1937, he was elected to the Native Representatives Council to advise the Minister of Native Affairs – participation that was initially strategically endorsed by the AAC. Thema served on this government body until its dissolution in 1951.

Thema was a member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC until 1949. He was Speaker during AB Xuma’s presidency and led the National Anti-Pass Council that petitioned the Prime Minister, in 1945. He suffered arrest during an ensuing protest march against the pass laws. Although Thema was regarded as moderate of opinion, he was an independent-minded leader who played a prominent and pioneering national role in the life of the African people.

Richard Victor Selope Thema rose from humble beginnings to be a force to be reckoned with in the anti-apartheid movement. He made a valuable contribution to the intellectual development of the struggle and never doubted the justness of the cause he was pursuing.

Thema died in Switzerland in 1955. Kwa-Thema, the well-known township near Springs, is named after him.
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