Jan Smuts reconsidered

Hermann Giliomee reflects on the elements of the late SA leader's greatness, as well as his weaknesses

The quality of greatness

About one issue in our history of the past century there is a large degree of consensus: Jan Smuts and Nelson Mandela rank higher than any other South African leader in the respect and admiration the world community bestowed upon them. A new biography of Smuts entitled Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness by Richard Steyn, ex-editor of The Star, offers the opportunity to reflect on the elements of Smuts’s greatness and to explore the few elements of weakness.

Smuts grew up on a farm in the district of Riebeeck West in the Western Cape. He was a shy boy without any obvious talents and only caught the attention when he began his studies at Victoria College in Stellenbosch. Going on to Christ College, Cambridge University, he soon made his mark. He took both parts of the Law Tripos in the same year and was placed first in each with distinction. F.W. Maitland, a distinguished scholar himself, considered Smuts the most outstanding student he ever taught.   

In 1970 Lord Todd, Master van Christ College, declared that in the previous 500 years of the history of the college there have been only three truly outstanding students: John Milton, Charles Darwin and Jan Smuts. Albert Einstein counted Smuts as one of approximately ten people that truly understood his theory of relativity. During the Second World War Smuts became a member of the British war cabinet. According to some, Winston Churchill depended on Smuts more than on any other member.

After Smuts’s death Churchill wrote to Isie, his wife in the following terms: “There must be comfort in the proofs of admiration and gratitude that have been evoked all over the world for a warrior-statesman and philosopher who was probably more fitted to guide struggling and blundering humanity through its suffering and perils than anyone who ever lived in any country during his epoch.”

Approximately ten biographies of Smuts have appeared so far. The most highly rated is that by the Australian historian, Keith Hancock, whose biography of Smuts appeared more than fifty years ago. He also co-edited the first four of the seven volumes of Smuts’s letters (it is estimated that he wrote more than 23 000 letters in his life) In 1994 a perceptive, richly illustrated biography by Trewhella Cameron appeared, which unfortunately is out of print.

What are the elements that constitute the greatness of Smuts? First of all he was an exceptional servant of the state. His life was one of service both in peace and war. There was never any hint of self-enrichment, corruption or shirking of difficult decisions.

Early in his career he took the decision that security and stability come before democracy. He had Jopie Fourie, an army officer who participated in the Rebellion of 1914-15, executed because he had not resigned his commission before engaging in hostile action on the side of rebels. He used airplanes to end the Rand Strike of 1922, which was spearheaded by radical miners. He used less extreme measures in the Second World War against the Ossewa Brandwag and other militant organisations, but everyone in the opposition knew that Smuts was not to be trifled with.

Smuts rejected the vote for blacks in a common system, but unlike the National Party he did not favour comprehensive black exclusion. He sought a form of inclusion of blacks that did not jeopardise white security. Steyn cites this statement by him in the early 1920’s: “White and black both have a proper place in South Africa. Both have their human rights, and let us in a fair and humble spirit … labour to make this land a home in which both race can live together in peace and friendship and work out their salvation in fairness and justice.”  

In a secret meeting in the late 1920 Smuts proposed the qualified franchise as a solution to Genl. J.B.M. Hertzog, NP leader and Prime Minister, but Hertzog refused. It could be predicted with a fair degree of certainty that very few of the black votes would go to the NP. Smuts probably never discarded the idea of a qualified franchise, but he did not propose it in public.

By 1970, twenty years after his death, the idea of the qualified franchise was also dead. Most developed nations now insisted that democracy on the basis of universal franchise was the solution to any difficult problem. In the United States the belief was almost evangelical. In a famous article in Commentary in 1979. Jeanne Fitzpatrick, an academic who would become a top advisor in the Reagan Administration to President Ronald Reagan, wrote: “No idea holds greater sway in the minds of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratise governments anywhere, and any time and in any circumstances. The speed with which armies collapse, bureaucracies abdicate, and social structures dissolve once the autocrat is removed frequently surprises American governments.”

Paddy Ashdown, the British ex-diplomat and politician, who stabilised Bosnia in the early years of this century, remarked that the main lesson he learnt is: security and stability come first, then a well-functioning legal system and only then democracy.

This was a lesson the American and the British learnt at great cost in Iraq. The present South African government still has to learn it. The immediate impulse on the part of the present government and university authorities is to concede to any force that threatens havoc.

Smuts was also determined to establish a forum for the world community that would lay down rules for governments and would punish those that violated these rules. He played a decisive part in the founding of the League of Nation after the First World War and that of the United Nations after the Second World War. Prof. Christof Heyns and Dr. Willem Gravett from the University of Pretoria Law School argue in their recent work that Smuts was the person who first used the term human rights in an official document put out by a world body. In 1945 Smuts wrote human rights into the preamble of the Charter of the United Nations in 1945.

Later Smuts was accused of inconsistency because he did not support the universal franchise in a common system as the solution for South Africa. But this is an anachronistic way of thinking. The creators of the United Nations, particularly Britain, tried to use the UN to preserve the racial and imperial order of the pre-Second World War period. At this stage the West considered the paramountcy of the rule of law as of primary importance.

One of their main targets was the Soviet Union in which individuals enjoyed no such protection. But Churchill, who after the war was one of the most respected leaders in the world, firmly rejected the idea of the withdrawal of Britain from its colony India and the introduction of universal franchise. Slowly the situation changed. With a country such as India now playing an important role, the UN was turned into an instrument for ending empires and white supremacy.

The Smuts government (1939-1948) recognised the permanent status of urbanised blacks and began to provide better social services and education for all the subordinate communities. Blacks were paid old-age pensions and disability grants, and were included in unemployment insurance. Education for blacks was expanded. By 1945 the financial provision for blacks in higher education was three times as much as it had been in 1936. In the primary standards free education, free books and free school meals were introduced.

By 1944, however, with the Allied powers sure to win the war, the tide of reform had begun to turn. Initially Native Affairs minister Piet van der Byl and Douglas Smit, the department’s secretary, decided to base native policy on the acceptance of the permanence of a section of the black urban population. They rejected migrant labour, except in the mining industry.[1]

But, as Van der Byl noted, a crucial question remained unresolved: was the government’s policy still the traditional one of segregation, or had it been replaced by integration? Unwisely, he raised the issue in the UP caucus and a predictable battle broke out between the liberal and conservative factions. Smuts was furious and hardly spoke to him for several months.[2] After the war the government renewed the policy of limiting black urbanisation to a minimum.

Yet Smuts knew it was no political solutions. In 1949 he made one of his greatest speeches in addressing vast Afrikaner crowd at the inauguration of the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. “Only on the basis of taking from the past what was beautiful could ‘fruitful co-operation and brotherhood’ between the two white communities be built. And only on this basis could a solution be found for the greatest problem which we have inherited from our ancestors, the problem of our native relations.’ [3] This was, he said, the most difficult and the final test of our civilization.’

In the southern states of the United States the disenfranchisement of the large majority of blacks prevailed until the 1960s. It took all the legendary skills of President Lyndon Johnson to pilot a bill through Congress extending universal franchise to blacks.

Richard Steyn’s Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness succeeds exceptionally well in the challenge he set for himself. To write popular history as “a form of journalism about the past” in which the story and the characters are the key elements and the arguments are secondary. What a great story and what a great character do we have in Jan Smuts. As Alan Paton said: “Even the great thought he was great.”

Richard Steyn, Jan Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2015), ISBN 98-1-86842-694-2; R250.00

An earlier version of this article appeared in Rapport


[1] Piet Meiring, Tien politieke leiers (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1973), p. 209.

[2] Piet Meiring, Tien politieke leiers , p. 208

[3] Smuts Papers, vol. 7, pp. 332-33.