When Smuts goes

Michael Cardo writes on the UCT SRC's call for the changing of the name of Smuts Hall

When Smuts Goes was the title of Arthur Keppel-Jones’s dystopian novel published in 1947. Billed as a “grim and exciting piece of historical phantasy”, it told the story of a mythical Republic formed by the National Party in 1966.

The eponymous hero of the novel was, of course, Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts. Smuts was the Boer War General who served twice as Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa before being defenestrated by the Nationalists – one electoral cycle earlier than Keppel-Jones prophesied – in the watershed election of 1948.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Smuts, the segregationist who told the South African Institute of Race Relations in 1942 that segregation had “fallen on evil days”, was booted from office.[1] His programme of cautious social and economic reform came to an abrupt halt. What many believed to be a freak victory for the Nats in 1948 turned into four decades of apartheid. Apartheid was not merely an extension of segregation. It was a radical, thoroughgoing and far-reaching departure from the policy of Smuts’s United Party government. Keppel-Jones’s grim prognostications came to pass.

Now, almost 75 years later, it seems that Smuts might be for the chop once more. It’s not his head on the block so much as his name. The University of Cape Town (UCT)’s Student Representative Council (SRC) has launched a formal bid to rename Smuts Hall, the men’s residence founded on the university’s Upper Campus in 1928 and named for Smuts after his death in 1950.

Smuts’s name is not cast in stone on the South African landscape; Jan Smuts Airport in Johannesburg was eventually redubbed OR Tambo International Airport in 2006. Surprisingly, however, Smuts’s effigy still is. Despite the wave of iconoclasm unleashed by the Rhodes Must Fall, decolonisation, and Black Lives Matter movements in recent years, the two most famous monuments to Smuts near South Africa’s Parliament in Cape Town remain intact. On Parliament Square in London, the life-size bronze statue of Smuts by Jacob Epstein somehow defied defacement in the aftermath of Edward Colston’s toppling in Bristol last June. Then, even Smuts’s great friend, Winston Churchill, the indefatigable slayer of fascism, had to be boarded up for his own safety.

“My faith in Smuts is unbreakable”, Churchill famously remarked of his fellow statesman. Smuts’s statuary is, if not unbreakable, then seemingly unbroken. His name, on the other hand, dangles precariously on the plinth of presentism. This is the practice whereby the past and its protagonists are judged in light of contemporary perspectives and values.

According to press reports, the SRC has approached the UCT Council, via the university’s Naming of Buildings Committee (NOBC), to find a more “appropriate and representative name” for Smuts Hall. The SRC wants a name that is “in line with the direction the institution aspires to”. The NOBC has apparently given the nod to the process and will make its recommendation to the UCT Council at the Council’s next meeting on 19 June.

In its submission, the SRC decries the “colonial, imperialist and racist legacy of Jan Smuts”.[2] It claims that the residence’s moniker “contributes to the character of its inhabitants”, who are “usually…private school matriculants”. The “perception”, according to the SRC, is that there are” a greater number of white students” in Smuts Hall. Moreover, the occupants are “perceived through their residence and by extension through their residence name [sic] as being racist and classist”.

Worst of all, those who dwell in Smuts Hall are “emboldened by the pride the residence alumni have in the name”. To the SRC, Smuts Hall – located in the shadow of Cecil Rhodes’s fallen statue and overlooked by (the now renamed) Jameson Hall – is one of several geographical markers that “signify an architecture and a space that negates Black humanity and dignity”.

It’s entirely understandable that Smuts’s political biography and views on race would make him anathema to students today. It’s worth noting, however, that his segregationist politics are making a retro-comeback in some circles. Yet, as Chancellor of UCT between 1936 and 1950, Smuts is inescapably part of the university’s heritage. The other institution to honour him in this way was the University of Cambridge, where Smuts had been a brilliant legal scholar. In 1948 Smuts was elected unanimously to the chancellorship of his alma mater; it was an honour, according to his most recent biographer, Richard Steyn, that he valued above all others.

Honour is a word often associated with statues, memorials, and edifices named for an individual; the whole point of them is to pay homage to those whose memory they keep alive. After Jameson Hall was lustrated and rechristened Sarah Baartman Hall, UCT Vice-Chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng, wrote to the university community. She argued that UCT should question the extent to which it upheld names, symbols and imagery that “uncritically honour those whom history has shown to be dishonourable”.[3]

Is Smuts – a member of Lloyd George’s War Cabinet in the First World War and a Field Marshal in the British Army in the Second World War – dishonourable? Many would recoil at the suggestion. He was certainly controversial (and disparaged by his opponents) in his own lifetime. A warrior, philosopher, and statesman, Smuts was a man of infinite contradictions.

Like Walt Whitman, the poet he so admired and wrote a manuscript about, Smuts was large and contained multitudes. For all his brilliance and ability to see the whole – Smuts was much enamoured with the philosophy of holism – his racial politics were confoundingly insular and parochial. Smuts was a man both before his time, and very much of his time.

As Saul Dubow, the Smuts Professor of Commonwealth History at Cambridge University notes, Smuts promoted human rights abroad while he suppressed them at home.[4] A driving force behind the formation of the League of Nations and the United Nations, a statesman who helped fashion the post-war international liberal order, Smuts was also a founding father of the illiberal, segregationist state back home. He was, unquestioningly, someone who believed in the supremacy of Western civilisation, a notion upon which little honour and much scorn is bestowed today.

In 2015, when UCT’s Senate resolved, under great pressure, and practically unanimously, to remove Rhodes’s statue from the campus – as opposed to juxtaposing it with another statue, or relocating it to a position of lesser prominence – I described the Senate’s decision as “a blanket suspension of its critical faculties…akin to turkeys voting for Christmas”.[5] I thought at the time that Rhodes’s forced removal was an attempt to erase him from the historical record. My concerns were heightened by the intolerance and intimidatory tactics of the Rhodes Must Fall movement.

Dogmatism and censoriousness, violent fury and conformity, the tyranny of groupthink and the madness of crowds – all of these are still part and parcel of the new breed of iconoclastic movements that view social justice solely through the prism of identity politics. In the intervening years, plenty more statues have fallen in the Anglosphere, and debates have raged about whether this constitutes erasure. Richard J. Evans, another Cambridge historian, contends that statues are about memory, and commemoration, rather than history. “Pulling down statues has nothing to do with history, and everything to do with memory”, he claims. “Toppling monuments does not mean erasing history”.[6] On Evans’s account, pulling down a statue (and perhaps changing a name) has the power to “strike a blow for the recalibration of public memory”. It can help to proclaim a new identity.

And that, after all, is the project with which UCT is engaged. The university seeks to create an inclusive environment in which students and staff see themselves – their cultures, values, and diverse heritages – reflected on campus through symbols and names of buildings and suchlike. Why should the name of Smuts – a name which, whatever way you slice it, occupies a prominent place in the history of white minority rule in South Africa – resonate culturally with the majority of black students today? Why should they continue to honour his name and his memory?

And, yet.

In 2018, the residents and alumni of Smuts Hall celebrated the 90th anniversary of their residence with a reunion that would, according to the university’s website, “connect Smutsmen from across the world”.[7] Accompanying the press release was a photograph of Smuts Hall’s (then) four subwardens – three black, one white – all modelling, with glowing smiles, the commemorative sweaters that had been manufactured for the occasion.

This multiracial quartet appeared to be proud of their association – physical and symbolic – with the residence that bears Smuts’s name. And that, surely, is a phenomenon worth pondering as Smuts’s name hangs in the balance. Generations of former students, black and white, might proudly identify as Smutsmen while rejecting, at their core, the racial politics espoused by Smuts. They will almost certainly, as the photo in question suggests, have transcended his politics. That is a cause for celebration. For it would be a tragedy if the racial chauvinism of the past were to be resculpted and acclaimed as the politics of progress in the present.

Therein lies the real threat, and potential source of dishonour, to UCT.

Michael Cardo is a member of the UCT Council, but the views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Council.

Smuts Hall sub-wardens in 2018 Source.


[1] Jonathan Hyslop, 'Segregation has fallen on evil days': Smuts' South Africa, global war, and transnational politics’, 1939-46, Journal of Global History; Cambridge Vol. 7, Iss. 3,  (Nov 2012): 438-460.

[2] The SRC submission can be downloaded at https://t.co/2k0qOY3DUm?amp=1

[4] Saul Dubow ‘South Africa’s Racist Founding Father Was Also a Human Rights Pioneer’, New York Times, 18 May 2019. Accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/18/opinion/jan-smuts-south-africa.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share

[6] Richard J. Evans, ‘The History Wars’, New Statesman, 17 June 2020. Accessed at https://www.newstatesman.com/international/2020/06/history-wars