James M. Thaele was born in Basutoland in 1888 and was reputed to be the son of a Basuto chief and a Coloured mother. From 1906 until about 1910, he studied at Lovedale, where his early propensity for high-flown language and affected manners of dress marked him out as a showman. In 1913 he went to America, where he remained for about 10 years. He studied at Lincoln University, completing both a B.A. degree and later a bachelor's degree in theology in 1921. He returned to South Africa strongly affected by the Garveyist movement, and his subsequent writings and speeches reflected a militant race consciousness and mistrust of whites, including missionaries.
With his brother, Kennan, Thaele organised a strong branch of the ANC in Cape Town, and by the late 1920s, aided by the Communist-backed activists Elliot Tonjeni and Bransby Ndobe, the western Cape African National Congress (ANC) with Thaele as president had spread its influence throughout the wine-producing districts as far east as Worcester and Swellendam. Thaele, dressed in "white sun helmet, white suit, white spats, white gloves, and carrying a walking stick," according to Benson, became a familiar figure on the Cape Town Grand Parade, addressing groups of Coloured and African workers at lunch hour. Dubbing himself "Professor," he established a one-man college in Cape Town, offering instruction to blacks studying for the Junior Certificate and matriculation exams. He also edited an ephemeral newspaper called The African World, and wrote bombastic pieces for The Workers' Herald, the organ of Clements Kadalie's Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union.
His attitude towards the Communist Party was eclectic, for although he agreed with much of Marxist thinking and was closer to the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) than to the national ANC in his preference for militant tactics, he rightly regarded organised communism in the western Cape as a threat to his own leadership. This conflict came to a head in 1930 when Thaele broke with Ndobe and Tonjeni and the ANC became split between their new "Independent ANC," based in the rural districts, and Thaele's Congress, based in Cape Town. This split coincided with a government offensive against western Cape political activists, and Thaele, weakened both by the split and by a court case in which he was forced to fight a charge under the Riotous Assemblies Act, from late 1930 lapsed into a period of relative inactivity. He remained ANC president in the western Cape until 1938, when his desire for autonomy brought him up against the efforts of James Calata and Z. R. Mahabane to strengthen and centralise the ANC nationally. Beaten in a provincial election by A.V. Coto in that year, he disputed his defeat but was overruled when Calata and Mahabane came to Cape Town to investigate the quarrel. He died in 1948.