Jan Smuts, hero and villain

I have finished reading an illustrated biography of J. C. Smuts (1870-1950), and yet I struggle to come to grips with this enigmatic giant of South African history.  Despite his considerable international stature during his decades of public service, Smuts is now almost an unperson in the nation he helped create.

It might be easiest to start with the military legacy of Jan Smuts.  He was deeply involved in three major conflicts: the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), World War I (1914-1918), and World War II (1939-1945).  Essentially he was a senior general in South Africa from just after the American Civil War to the end of World War II, when he was appointed Field Marshall by the British Crown.  Remarkably, his command in the Second Anglo-Boer war pitted him against English forces (he led a deep-penetration commando into the southwestern Cape to harry English forces), so it is quite remarkable that he was so closely trusted by the British government as to be included in the British War Cabinet during both World Wars.  In 1917, he authored a proposal that led to the creation of the U.K.’s Royal Air Force.  In short, his contributions to war policy, in particular, are still felt today, throughout the world.

Next, we have Smuts the statesman.  Smuts was a considerable strategic thinker, with an emphasis on holism (he wrote a book on the subject) that caused him to favor peace over war (as Paul Kruger’s 28-year-old State Attorney for the Transvaal, he applied all his skills to forestall war with the Cape Colony), favored relationships over humiliation (urgently appealing for the end of German reparation payments in the aftermath of World War I), and served as one of the key architects of the new world order (he drafted the Preamble to the United Nations Charter).  His persistence and influence amplified each other.

Outside of South Africa, he was regarded as a fire from the wilderness.  Inside South Africa, he played a challenging role in the middle, as the leader of the South African Party and later of the United Party.  He faced strong challenges from Afrikaner movements, particularly the National Party under J.B.M. Hertzog.  After two stints as prime minister (1919-1924 and 1939-1948), his time as leader of South Africa was cut short by the National Party under D. F. Malan.  He died only two years later.  In South African politics, the South African Party was viewed as liberal (particularly in their desire to remain part of the British Commonwealth), while the Nationals were interpreted as more conservative (believing that South Africa should be an entirely independent nation with its own language).

In post-Apartheid South Africa, Smuts is a divisive figure from the past whose accomplishments cannot be celebrated because he was also responsible for setting the stage for Apartheid (though the Nationals were generally his political opponents).  The pressures that Smuts faced from the left seem to be those that have most damned his reputation in modern eyes.  Smuts was party to the patriarchal view that white men from European cultures were to be the salvation of the world; in his view, white men must take responsibility for civilizing other people.  A theme that emerged again and again across Smuts’ career was that of gradualism.  Smuts clearly believed that making drastic changes was inherently foolish.  Several times his slow-motion responses to civil rights crises made me think of Gladstone’s admonition that “Justice delayed is justice denied.”  It seemed equally clear that Smuts never assembled a cogent vision of how the white and other populations of South Africa should interact.  As a result, he often found himself digging in his heels to slow the roll-out of National-inspired legislation without offering an alternative vision.

Some concrete examples may be illustrative.  As a leader of the government for such long spans of time, his was the responsibility to protect the rights of the population of his country.  Specifically, these included the ethnic Indian population in Natal, around the city of Durban; the Cape Coloured population, principally the offspring of Khoisan, Malay slaves, and whites in and around Cape Town; and the African tribes occupying South Africa, principally the Xhosa and Zulu but also including many other groups. The Indians in Natal had campaigned for civil rights, especially as Gandhi began working out effective strategies for passive resistance (he started that career in South Africa, not India).  Although Smuts and Kajee, a leader of the South African Indian Congress, kept up a close relationship, Smuts allowed legislation to pass that forestalled Indians from buying property in certain areas.  The Cape Coloured population has generally been left in the middle for most racial legislation of South Africa, but at least it was possible for them to vote in Cape Colony and later South African elections, if they qualified under the Cape Franchise Qualifications.  Smuts essentially traded these franchise rights for other benefits that he judged would be more suitable.  The black population of South Africa, typically, got the short end of the stick.  The moderate leaders of the 1930s African National Congress sought to work with leaders of the government to establish civil rights.  Smuts turned a deaf ear to these moderate leaders enough times that more violent activists were able to take over leadership.  I would point out that other leaders were more visionary on this score.  In the lead-up to the pivotal 1948 election, Jan Hofmeyr, deputy to Smuts, responded to a question that “Natives will eventually be represented in Parliament by Natives, and Indians by Indians.”  This dramatic statement caused many moderate whites to turn away from the party, but Smuts sheltered Hofmeyr from the criticism directed at him within the party.  Near the end of his political career, it appears that Smuts had begun thinking more proactively about the constructive role that public policy could play in improving the future for other races in South Africa, but his liberalism (plus the end of World War II) left his party open to defeat at the hands of the Nationals in 1948.

Smuts left an undeniable imprint on world history, and yet his name also bears the stain of the human beings who suffered because of him.

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3 thoughts on “Jan Smuts, hero and villain

  1. Pingback: Northern Cape: Kilometers pass more quickly than miles | Picking Up The Tabb

  2. Pingback: A snake on the Silvertree Trail at Kirstenbosch | Picking Up The Tabb

  3. Pingback: Dr. D.F. Malan, a parson-publisher-politician of perilous principles | Picking Up The Tabb

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