Jan Christian Smuts, the difficult legacy of a world statesman

Smuts in his prime

One of Africa’s greatest statesmen of the Imperial era, and some would say beyond, Jan Christian Smuts was a gargantuan figure in the Abe Lincoln mould. He was essentially a simple and bucolic man who was burdened with greatness but who was able to embrace that greatness in a radically changing world. Boer guerrilla leader, two time South African premier, British Army general and commander and architect of both the League of Nations and United Nations, Smuts ranks with Nelson Mandela as one of Africa’s most gifted sons. Despite a questionable national philosophy he rose to the highest levels of statesmanship in an empire not noted for its embrace of ethnic minorities. In 2004 he was voted in a South African Broadcasting Corporation poll the greatest South African of all time.

Smuts was born in 1870 to a wealthy Cape farming family of staunch Afrikaner outlook. An early academic aptitude saw him rise rapidly through the local school system before he moved on to the prestigious learning institutes of Stellenbosch in the Eastern Cape. From there he continued to Cambridge University, graduating in 1893 with a double first. A year later he passed the examination for the Inns of Court after which he entered the Middle Temple. He was embraced by the normally cloistered legal fraternity in London, and seemed set on course for a brilliant career. However by late 1995 he was on his way back to the Cape, determined to force his future in the land of his birth.

In the Cape Smuts first entered the legal profession, but was drawn in due course to journalism and politics. This was a time when South African politics was entering its most divisive but energetic phase. Formed of an unhappy family of British Colonies and Boer Republics, the massive wealth that had been drawn from diamonds and gold, as well as the enduring antipathy that existed between Boer and Briton, seemed almost to guarantee that in due course war would follow.

And indeed war did follow. One of the great provocateurs of southern Africa, Cecil John Rhodes, by then a man of immense wealth and power, and perhaps more importantly, one committed with an almost religious zeal to the growth of the British Empire, tipped the fatal balance of tolerance between the British and the Boer which plunged the Empire, and indeed the Afrikaner race, into one of the signature territorial wars of the Age of Empire.

It was during the Anglo/Boer War of 1899 to 1902 that Smuts emerged as a guerrilla leader and a great South African leader in general. He distinguished himself alongside General Louis Both during the latter, guerrilla phase of the war, and then later emerged as the voice of moderate real politik in the territorial merger that in 1910 was to become the Union of South Africa, a dominion of the British Empire.

It was during World War I, however, that Smuts really distinguished himself as a great military strategist and commander. He initially served as Second in Command to General, and then South African Prime Minister, Louis Both, in a brilliantly executed campaign to oust the German garrison from the colony of South West Africa. This was followed by his being awarded command of the Allied force in German East Africa, now Tanzania.

Smuts honoured on Parliment Square as a war hero

The East Africa Campaign of WWI is arguably one of the most interesting of a war that surged in virtual stalemate from one year to the next on a variety of different fronts. It was led on the German side by enigmatic regular army Colonel Paul von Lettow Vorbeck, and on the British by Smuts himself. Smuts was never a member of the British Army but was appointed commander with the rank of General in recognition of his abilities, and perhaps as a consequence of the fact that the large South African force involved in the campaign would be easier to induce into action under the command of one of their own.

Smuts fought a brilliant but frustrating campaign against a man, who, like himself, was a master guerrilla strategist. Von Lettow Vorbeck fought under no particular expectation of victory – it was felt by the Germans that the matter would ultimately be decided in their favour in Europe – but with a view to tying up as many Allied troops in an essentially pointless pursuit through the wilds of East and Central Africa for no better purpose than to keep them away from more important theatres of the war.

As a consequence neither Smuts himself nor the huge Imperial commitment of manpower and equipment in the region were able to secure a decisive victory. The Campaign attracted notoriety for the unsustainable number of white casualties caused by deprivation and disease, a figure which outstripped deaths and incapacitation cause by active service. In the end the Campaign was concluded by the general Armistice agreed to during the Paris Peace Conference, during which both Smuts and Both incidentally served as negotiators.

In the aftermath of the War Smuts served as Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa but was constantly harrased on his right wing by an emerging force of Afrikaner Nationalists opposed to the English speaking domination of the South African economic and political landscape. Bruising right wing labour confrontations were fought, a failed effort to draw Rhodesia into the union as an addition province was made, and ultimately Smuts was defeat at the polls in 1924 by the right-wing National Party.

Smuts and Churchill as the Commonwealth Prime Minister's Conference

Smuts with Churchill at the Commonwealth Prime Minister's Conference

Smuts’ involvement in Imperial military affairs did not cease, however. World War Two saw him serving once again as South African Prime Minister, appointed after a caucus removal of his Nationalist predecessor over the issue of South African involvement in the war. He then went on to serve on the Imperial War Cabinet, honoured at that time with the rank of a Field Marshal in the British Army. In the 1948 South African General Election the Nationalists under Daniel Malan regained power in the Union, setting the stage for the emergence of the Republic of South Africa and the sterile and divisive years of Apartheid that would follow.

The legacy of a man of Smut’s stature is obviously difficult to quantify, since he experience his growth at a time of nascent race division and separation in South Africa, a situation complicated by the fact that the division of the races was not only along black/white lines. Since he can hardly be defined as an opponent of black repression, his fit into the currently accepted definition of greatness in necessarily uncomfortable. Nonetheless Smuts was a great man, and as a product of his times, he was indeed one of the greatest men of his era.

Jan Smuts died in September 1950 much as he had been born, an essentially humble, simple-living and straightforward man. That he should stand in the British Imperial pantheon as he does the South African is simply fitting for a man who defies definition and who spoke less for a nation and a people than a world.