Richard Victor Selope Thema was born in Ga-Mamabolo, Pietersburg district, in 1886. Both his parents were Pedi speaking but not originally belonging to the Mamabolo tribe who, through early contact with missionaries, were already Christians. Though his parents were not Christians, Thema attended mission schools. He interrupted his education when he ran away from school in 1901 and joined the British troops stationed in Pietersburg during the South African War (Anglo-Boer War 2). After the declaration of peace he went to Pretoria where he first worked as waiter in a boarding-house and then at the Imperial Military Railway Dispensary in Pretoria. In 1903 he continued with his education and in 1904 was assigned to open a school adjacent to his parents' home.
In 1906 Thema enrolled at the Lovedale Institution at Alice in the Eastern Cape until he obtained his Junior Certificate in 1907 and then qualified as a teacher. From the end of 1910 he taught in the Pietersburg district for a year, but then started working as a clerk, first at the Pietersburg mine recruiting office for three years, and from 1915 in Johannesburgin the office of the attorney Richard W. Msimang. Msimang was chairperson of the committee that had to draw up a new constitution for the South African Native National Congress (SANNC, African National Congress (ANC) after 1923). Thema acted as Msimang's secretary on the committee. This allowed Thema's opportunity to acquaint himself with the affairs of the congress and in 1915 he was elected provincial secretary of the Transvaal branch of the SANNC.
While Solomon T. Plaatje was in Europe during the First World War (1914-1918), Thema deputised him, acting periodically in this capacity in the 1920s. In 1919 he was a secretary of the deputation to the Versailles Peace Conference and the British government to petition for a better dispensation for the blacks in South Africa. While in England, Thema pursued his educational career and enrolled for a course at a London school of journalism. On his return to South Africa he became sub-editor of the SANNC newspaper Abantu Baths, and correspondent for Umteteli wa Bantu. He became known as a persuasive writer and major spokesperson for moderate African opinion. In 1932 he became editor of the newly established newspaper, The Bantu World. He remained editor until his retirement in 1952. The newspaper was owned by whites but written by and for Africans. Under Thema's editorship the paper became an important medium for the politicisation of the urban African. It gave detailed information about the ANC, but was simultaneously a mouthpiece for Thema's own political viewpoints that were fairly moderate and even considered conservative.
He was opposed to the influences from the left and the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA, South African Communist Party (SACP) after 1953), the use of boycotts as a political technique, and co-operation between Africans and Indians whom he considered an economic threat. Thema was joint author with J.D. Rheinallt Jones of the chapter 'Our changing life and thought in South Africa' published in Thinking with Africa: chapters by a group of nationals interpreting the Christian movement (New York, 1927). Thema believed that dialogue and negotiations would be the best way to get a better dispensation for Africans.
Throughout the 1920s the government invited Thema to attend and participate in conferences convened under the Native Affairs Act no. 23 of 1920 to discuss matters concerning the Africans. He became a founder member and leader of the multiracial Johannesburg Joint Council of Europeans and Bantu. Although the ANC did not support this council it proved to be a forum for expressing the problems experienced by the Africans. In 1925 he was appointed assistant secretary to the Joint Council. From 1937 he served in the Native Representative Council (NRC), representing the rural areas of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. He remained a member of the NRC until it was dissolved in 1951. In 1945 he was leader of the National Anti-Pass Council that went to Cape Town to hand over a petition to Acting Prime Minister Jan Hofmeyr. During the ensuing protest march, Thema was arrested for leading an illegal procession. Thema was one of the organisers of the All-African Convention (AAC) that met for the first time in December 1935. He served on the AAC executive. After the slump the ANC experienced under the presidency of Pixley Seme, Thema helped with the revival of the congress. Under president-general A.B. Xuma he served as ANC speaker, but after Xuma's defeat in 1949 Thema could not associate with the new trends in the ANC. When a member of the CPSA, J.B. Marks, became provincial president of the Transvaal ANC, Thema founded the National Minded Bloc, a conservative faction that opposed the co-operation between the ANC and SACP and the increasing militancy.
During the 1920s and early 1930s Thema was superintendent of the Bantu Men's Social Centre in Johannesburg. He resigned when he became editor of The Bantu World in 1932. For many years he served on the Lovedale Governing Council. Thema was a strong and prominent leader in the early years of the ANC. He is sometimes described as an opportunist who made his demands through white liberals and mass meetings where he proved to be a well-informed and brilliant orator. He was married to Phillipine Mapule Chide. The couple had a son and a daughter. He was buried in the Croesus Cemetery in Newclare, Johannesburg. Kwa-Thema township outside Springs was named after him, as well as the Selope Thema Community School in Orlando East.
Verwey, E.J. (ed)(1995). New Dictionary of South African Biography, v.1 , Pretoria: HSRC.