Enigmatic Jan Smuts still elusive in new biography

Jan Smuts won the vote to join the war against the Nazi. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Jan Smuts won the vote to join the war against the Nazi. (Keystone/Getty Images)

The latest Jan Smuts biography explores but does not fully explain the terrible blots in his otherwise brilliant career.

JAN SMUTS: UNAFRAID OF GREATNESS by Richard Steyn (Jonathan Ball)

Another biography of Jan Smuts? Dazzling in his giftedness and achievements, Smuts has been incomprehensible in his ultimate political and moral failure. These failures have haunted us for the past 70 years and will continue to do so. Richard Steyn, in Jan Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness, attempts to unravel the mystery.

My being in the world may be attributed to Smuts. Life in England during the years immediately following World War II was grim. There was food rationing. London was strewn with the bombed wrecks of buildings, reminding everyone of the awfulness of the years before.

When Smuts invited the British royal family to visit South Africa in 1947, both he and this country received such favourable news coverage in Britain that my maternal grandparents decided to immigrate with my mother, as part of the wave of hundreds of thousands who came here from Britain shortly before the National Party came to power in 1948. My mother met my father here.

Against this background, I began to read biographies of Smuts as a schoolboy. I have read those by Piet Beukes, Bernard Friedman, Keith Hancock, Piet Meiring, Sarah Gertrude Millin and his son, Jannie.

Among the reasons for this plethora of biographies is that Smuts continues to be an enduring enigma. No one has succeeded in explaining his massive flaws, despite his undoubted brilliance. Interestingly, as with his biographies, no painting, statue, bust or even photograph quite captures his personality. He always looks different, even though he is immediately recognisable.

Uncovering Smuts’s complexity
As is to be expected from a lawyer who saw the light of journalism, eventually becoming one of South Africa’s distinguished newspaper editors, Richard Steyn writes beautifully. (Hancock’s two-volume work is magisterial and scholarly but is a ponderous and turgid tome.) In a style that is easy to read, he takes one through the life of Smuts at a gripping pace. Through the device of writing the book in two parts, the first a chronological account and the second a series of vignettes on aspects of his personality, Steyn succeeds, more than the other biographers, in uncovering Smuts’s complexity.

By any standards, Smuts was extraordinary. He had a prodigious memory, capable of absorbing detailed information. He was placed first, with distinction, in the Law Tripos at Cambridge, acclaimed by his tutors and examiners as the finest scholar they had ever had, immediately being offered a professorship.

A close friend of Boer heroes such as Koos de la Rey and Deneys Reitz, he was, while in his 30s, a distinguished Boer general himself and a close confidant of Paul Kruger. He subsequently favoured integration with the British Empire and the establishment of the Union of South Africa, not for the reason that he was enamoured of the British but because he correctly understood that being part of larger economic units was necessary for the country to prosper.

During World War I, Smuts was a member of the British war cabinet and, together with his erstwhile rival and antagonist Lord Alfred Milner, devised the defeat of the German kaiser. It was a close thing indeed. The architecture of the Royal Air Force, modelled by Smuts, remains essentially unchanged to this day.

Establishing the League of Nations
His friendship with John Maynard Keynes may explain Smuts having an excellent grasp of economics. He understood that good economics is often counterintuitive. Related to this, Albert Einstein said of Smuts that he was one of a handful of people in the world who truly understood the theories of relativity. What is more counterintuitive than Einsteinian relativity?

Together with Keynes, Smuts opposed the draconian reparations imposed on Germany after the war, not only on moral grounds but also as economically unwise and politically dangerous.

Smuts forced and narrowly won the parliamentary vote to join Britain in the war against the Nazis. During that war, Smuts’s counsel proved invaluable to Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Dwight D Eisenhower and Bernard Montgomery. Had his advice been heeded, the Western Allies might have occupied the whole of Europe before Joseph Stalin arrived in the east of the continent.

Smuts was instrumental in establishing the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations and the author of the wording of the preamble to its charter. He came up with the idea of transforming the British Empire into the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Smuts was eccentric. For example, despite being well off (he died a wealthy man), he preferred to stay in his corrugated iron home at Doornkloof, which he had bought as a disused officers’ mess from the British. There, he slept outside on the porch even during the cold highveld winters. He kept an original Greek version of the New Testament next to his bed, often reading from it before falling asleep. Except on Sundays, no hot water with which to wash was allowed for either his family or visitors.

Botanists may be delighted, but his closest friends indulged, with forbearance, his fascination with the grasses of Africa, his passion for identifying them and remembering their Latin names.

Failures and successes
What of the two large blots on an otherwise brilliant career? He failed both to take steps to prevent the National Party victory in 1948 and to deal with what was then known as “the native question”. The defeat of Smuts’s United Party in 1948 was not quite as unexpected as is often made out. Arthur Keppel-Jones predicted it with eerie prescience in his 1947 book, When Smuts Goes (a work of futuristic history or what is known in publishing today as alternative history).

The upset was made possible because urban constituencies, relative to the rural areas, had an undue weighting of voters. Not only in the 1948 election but also in 1953 and 1958 the National Party won with a minority of white votes. Smuts had been begged to remedy the situation. He refused to do so, contending that it was a “matter of honour” to let things be. The rationale was to compensate members of Parliament for the allegedly heavier workload that arose from representing large rural constituencies. Confident of victory, he campaigned little in the months preceding the election, spending much time abroad.

As for “the native question”, Smuts had maintained throughout his life that this was a matter to be dealt with “sometime in the future”. Although he recognised the greatness of Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, Smuts’s dealing with his demands on behalf of the Indians was similarly unimaginative.

On both fronts, Smuts got away with this until the end of World War II. How? There had been a broad consensus, in Europe and North America, that a universal franchise for colonised people was ridiculous. The stock response was: “But they [‘the natives’] are not yet ready for it.” It was the Holocaust that abruptly conscientised the world about the evils of racial paradigms.

Smuts’s blind spot
Steyn attempts to deal with Smuts’s “blind spot” by having recourse to the golden rule of historical analysis: context is everything. Steyn defends Smuts as a “product of his time”. This will not do. Those of lesser stature, such as John X Merriman, the prime minister of the Cape before Union, and Smuts’s deputy prime minister, Jan Hofmeyr, attempted, however inadequately, to address the issue, often resorting to the idea of a qualified franchise. Nonracial it may be, but the disadvantaged – who need it most – were excluded.

The Victorian novelist and man of letters, Anthony Trollope, discerned in his Travels in South Africa that the challenge for the nation was for a white minority to find a way to live in harmony with a majority of blacks. Context prevented Smuts from being an evangelising liberal, but he could have explained the truth.

Dealing with Smuts’s relationship with Queen Frederica of Greece, Steyn may, however, have cracked the code. She was the anti-Nazi granddaughter of the kaiser. Churchill, with Smuts’s concurrence, thought it best that she and her family lived in exile in South Africa during the war.

The queen was young, beautiful, charming and intelligent. Smuts’s attraction to her was natural enough. He spent much time in her company. There was probably no consummated physical relationship between the two but Smuts would invite her regularly to stay for long periods at Doornkloof. His wife, Isie, was there as well. When Isie had an honorary degree conferred on her by Wits University, he invited the queen to accompany him to the ceremony and, most extraordinarily, invited her to accompany him to the wedding ceremony of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1947.

Anyone who behaves like that not only has a massive inner confidence but has also lost his grip on how the world works. By 1948, Smuts had been awarded the Order of Merit, the title of field marshal, chancellorships and many honorary doctorates from prestigious universities, the freedom of numerous cities, the admiring friendships of greats such as Churchill and Roosevelt, the adoration of the British royal family.

He had received so much adulation that his judgment began to be impaired – the stuff of a truly Greek tragedy.


Nigel Willis is a Supreme Court of Appeal judge. The views expressed here are his own.

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