SMUTS: TRAILBLAZER OF THE
Jan Christiaan Smuts was complex, controversial and filled with contradictions . He fought the British, but never ceased to love them. He spoke Afrikaans at home, but politically he thought in English. He was in many ways the very embodiment of Empire; yet it was he who broke the Empire pattern and gave the lead in transforming the imperial family of nations into what he insisted it really was - a Commonwealth.
A veld-born Afrikaner , staunchly nationalistic, he had a breadth of of vision that carried him far beyond “the hills of my beginnings” into the councils of the world. He helped, after the First World War to create the League of Nations, and after the Second World War, when he was 74, to secure the United Nations future by urging compromises amongst the bickering Allies.
Though his family were loyally British, they were hereditarily and spiritually completely Boer. Boer means ‘farmer,’ and his ancestors - stern Calvanists - had come from Holland in the 17th Century to till the rich soil and raise cattle on the fertile Cape hillsides. Duty, religion a stern respect for property; these were their watchwords.
The boy did not go to school until he was 12, for he had an older brother and it was the custom that only the eldest should have an education. In stead he herded beeste for his father.
He went to Victoria College, Stellenbosch, where he fell in love with philosophy and botany, with Shelley, Shakespeare, Goethe, Walt Whitman - and at 17, with pretty and intelligent local girl, Sybella Margaretha Krige, the adored “Isie” whom he married ten years later.
Soon after they met he sailed for England to take up a scholarship at Cambridge. He was academically brilliant, but as a poor farmers boy who spoke with a guttural accent, he was a million miles removed from the universities sophisticated social life. Again on a scholarship, he read law at London’s middle Temple.
He returned to the Cape to find two violently opposed schools of political thought. To many Boers, South Africa’s future lay in the leadership of Cecil Rhodes, Premier of the Cape Colony, who was determined to weld Dutch and British into a unified community. The name of Rhodes’s party expressed his goal: the Afrikaner bond.
Opposing him was Paul Kruger, President of the Transvaal, a sturdy rock like patriarch who was dedicated to “Afrika voor Afrikaners.” From his boyhood, Smuts had felt that strength lay in association in the unity of the whole, a philosophy he was to rationalise under the name of “holism.” At 20 he wrote that, “the cornerstone of South African politics is the fact that South Africa is one.” Clearly Rhodes was his man.
But events forced Smuts to turn his back on the Cape and to become Kruger’s ally in the Transvaal, as ardent an enemy of Rhodes, and of British policy as was the stubborn old “Oom Paul,” Uncle Paul Kruger himself.
Smuts had been shocked into his about face by an act that has always been a blot on British history, the Jameson Raid. Uitlanders, denied the vote, decided to stage an uprising in Johannesburg, Rhodes deputed a close colleague, Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, to stand by on the Bechuanaland border with 500 armed British irregulars in case they needed help.
The time chosen for the revolt - around Christmas 1895 - came and passed and nothing happened. So Jameson, without orders impetuously set out to force the revolt by marching on the Transvaal capital on December 29. The result was a fiasco. Jameson and his men were ignominiously taken prisoner and hatred blazed between Boer and Briton. The raid drove Cecil Rhodes from office; and it drove Jan Smuts, disillusioned, into Kruger’s camp. During the next year, Smuts saw clearly that Britain was attempting to assert her paramountcy in all of Southern Africa, including the independent Boer republics north of the Orange River - the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. He married Isie, and left for Pretoria the capital of the Transvaal where he set up in law.
It was the opening of his door to greatness: within 18 months he was State attorney in Kruger’s government; within two years the South African Republic’s chief negotiator with Britain; within three years an audacious military commander in the Boer War, venerated by his men and ungrudgingly respected by his enemy, and within four - still only 31 - an undisputed leader, and his people’s trusted legal adviser at the agonising surrender at Vereeniging, which spelled the Boer’s defeat in the conflict that had raged from 1899 to 1902.
It had become clear to even the most ardent Afrikaners that to prolong the armed struggle could mean only utter ruin. Boer leaders began to seek ways to end the war with honour and independence intact. A forlorn hope. Both Lord Milner, the British High Commissioner in Cape Town and Lord Kitchener, the commander-in-chief, told the Boer representatives flatly that they would not even consider the Boers’ continued independence after surrender. So the Boers summoned the leaders of their commandos from the field, Smuts among them, to ask if they were willing to pay so heavy a price for peace.
It was now that Smuts exhibited a flexibility- some have called it lack of principle - that affected the course of South African politics well beyond his own life. There was deep division. A minority, the bittereinders declared that they would fight to the “bitter end.” But the majority could see no point in wiping out their own people for the sake of an idea. Louis Botha, commander-in-chief of the Boer army, a gruff, hearty man with great charm, took the majority stand
In carrying his conviction into the final debate at Vereeniging in May 1902, he displayed the trait that motivated many in his most controversial acts in later years: when the end of any conflict seems inevitable, he impetuously embraced it, even though it might mean defeat. It was undoubtedly, in part, because his extraordinary mind abhorred post-mortem's and always leapt forward to see what could be built from the disaster.
In helping to draft the Treaty of Vereenigning, Smuts ran head on, for the first time on an official level, into the question of black-white relationships. Years before he had said that the native question was the question of South Africa, and that the white races must be “the trustees for the coloured races.”
Trusteeship however meant to him protection and compassion, not equality. “Democracy”, he said “did not work even in civilised Europe”; it was completely inapplicable to “barbarous Africa.”
A Boer himself, he understood Boer attitudes. More important, he understood the history that created them. When he sat down at the peace table he knew what his compatriots would accept and what they would reject. They had undertaken the Great Trek at least in part to escape from the effects of British emancipation in 1833, which had freed 39,000 Boer-owned slaves. Boers had engaged in bloody battles with Matabele and Zulu. They could look on the African as an enemy as a servant or as a member of a “child race.” But never could they regard him as a potential equal. The British on the other hand had been committed since Abolition to a Negro policy that moved towards full and equal rights.
On the subject of emancipating and enfranchising the black peoples, Milner suggested that it should “not be given to natives until after the introduction of self-government.” Smuts knew a danger-flag when he saw one. If this meant the automatic guarantee of a black vote immediately upon the restoration of independence, the Boers simply would not stand for it. He offered an alternative: “T he question of granting the franchise to natives will not be decided until after the introduction of self-government.” Thus the Boers would cope with the “native problem” in their own good time. The clause was accepted.
It has been argued that Smuts sowed the seeds of Apartheid at the peace settlement and during the years of his power that followed. He did not sow them: that had been done decades before. He merely did nothing to uproot them.
Soon there was to occur across the Transvaal’s colour line a confrontation which was to have consequences undreamt of at the time for South Africa, Britain, India - and indeed, the world. Mohandas Gandhi had arrived in South Africa in the early 1890’s to represent a Muslim firm in a civil action in Pretoria. He had no thought of destiny beyond earning a living for his family from the law he had learnt in London.
It was to be many years before his country called him Mahatma - “Great Soul.” From the time he disembarked at Durban, he was treated as a “coolie” barrister, forced to travel third-class even when in possession of a first-class ticket, exposed to all the discriminatory indignities that were standard treatment for Indians. There were by then about 100,000 of them in South Africa, chiefly in Natal. Some had been indentured labourers, and their contracts as “free settlers.”
At this time a bill was being pushed through the Natal legislature to disenfranchise Indians on grounds of race. Hearing this Gandhi, who was ready to sail for India, cancelled his booking to mount a petition of protest. Apart from visits home, he spent the next 20 years in South Africa; it was here that he formulated and developed the technique of non-violent resistance that were eventually to take India out of the Empire.
In 1907 he clashed with Smuts. Despite their superficial dissimilarities, the essential differences between East and west, Smuts and Gandhi had a great deal in common. Both respected British constitutionality and British compromise. And both in their wide vision of the future shared a basic integrity.
They groped towards each other through clouds of political cross-purpose, potential friends placed by circumstances on opposite sides of the battle-line. The issue was the “Black Act” - The Asiatic Law Amendment Act” - which would close the Transvaal to new Indian immigrants and force the registration of those already there: all unregistered Indians would be deported.
Since imperial Britain was specifically obliged to protect Indian rights ,Gandhi decided that his compatriots were legally entitled to resist the statute - but without carrying the resistance into rebellion. What he proposed instead has come to be called “passive resistance.” He himself objected to the phrase. The Indians were not passive, he said, and not weak, and the instrument of their resistance was the use of a kind of force , though non-violent. He later called the technique “satragyaha”, “the force born of truth and love.” It meant the refusal to submit and the willing ness to suffer the penalties for that refusal.
Fortunately for Gandhi, it was Smuts, the genius of conciliation, against whom he first used the policy. Later South Africans, less tender of conscience, had a shorter, harsher way with passive resistance. Gandhi’s campaign reached its climax in 1912, when 50,000 Natal Indians took part in a massive satyagraha directed against a £3 poll tax and the non-recognition of Indian marriages. A protest from the Viceroy re-inforced the pressure. Smuts was by then the Grand Panjandrum of the Union of South Africa’s first independent government under Botha; he was responsible for defence, finance, interior, mines, posts and telegraphs - virtually everything including policy. He appointed a commission of enquiry into Indian grievances ; freed Gandhi, who had been in prison, and opened negotiations.
By 1914 the limited objectives of the satyagraha had been achieved. Gandhi saw that it could also be applied to the British in India, and the following year he returned there to put his ideas into effect. It is a mark of the great spirit of both men that, throughout the bitter conflict, which lasted seven years, their mutual respect grew until it approached affection. While in prison, Gandhi made Smuts a pair of sandals which the latter treasured all his life.
Gandhi understood the framework within which Smuts operated. Smuts on his side, appreciated the aspirations and arguments of a mind that was neither white-European-sophisticated nor white-South African-simple. When Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, Smuts exclaimed “A prince of men has passed away.”
After the Peace of Vereeniging Smuts and Botha founded a political party in the Transvaal, Het Volk - The People - based on conciliation and unity. It was to operate on 4 levels: All Afrikaners - the hensoppers or upper-handers, who had been quick to surrender, and the bittereinders - were to be reconciled. So were English and Africaan South Africans.
The four colonies - Natal, Transvaal, the Orange Free State and the Cape - were to be welded into an indissoluble union. The resulting union was to be fitted into a liberalised empire that would be more than the mere sum of its constituent colonies. Smuts had not yet fastened on the word “Commonwealth” in this connection; but he had used it previously to describe what he hoped South Africa would become.
Smuts and Botha worked together to make Het Volk a powerful instrument in the progress towards unification. The men complemented each other: the cosmopolitan philosopher and intellectual; and the blunt poorly educated farmer, simple but noble, and persuasive in speech. It was Smuts who obtained from Campbell-Bannerman’s liberal regime responsible government for the Transvaal at the end of 1906; but it was Botha who became its first Prime Minister. The four colonies differed drastically and the greatest disparity lay in their political outlooks. Many Afrikaners detested the “jingoes” - South-Africans who were pro-British - and wanted no imperial ties whatsoever. General Christian De Wet, one of the bitterest of the bittereinders, later voiced their feelings, “I would rather live on a dunghill with my own people than in palaces of the British Empire.”
Transvaalers had long complained that their gold was being exploited for the benefit of of the British. They deeply resented the mining magnates on the Witwatersrand, who were called “Randlords” in Britain. Overlooking the fact that the Randlords paid the bulk of their taxes in the Transvaal, Afrikaans patriots caricatured them as one single grasping plutocrat whom they dubbed “Hoogenheimer.”
Despite the obstacles, however, union was inevitable. Confederation had already been discussed and found wanting. It was clear that what was needed was one single parliament, one ingle government. In 1907, Lord Selborne, Milner’s successor circulated the leaders of the four colonies to urge unification. During the following year delegates from all four met to hammer out a constitution.
One of the hardest nuts to crack was the selection of a capital. Conciliation won the day: there would be two capitals, Cape Town for the legislature and Pretoria for the executive; to please Bloemfontein, the judiciary would be established there.
The Act of Union was approved by the British Parliament in 1909 and signed by the King on May 31, 1910, exactly eight years after the Treaty o Vereenging. The vast territory now to be ruled by its own legislature of 121 members, subject only to the Governor-General. The following year, the new dominion held its first election. The ship of state was launched with Botha at the helm and Smuts beside him.
They hoped of course, that the union would bind up the wounds. But within months fresh scars had re-opened. The bittereinders were still vigorous. Chief amongst them was General Barry Hertzog, soldier, lawyer and leader of Orangia Unie, which with Het Volk and the South African Party, dominated the new assembly. Hertzog saw both Botha and Smuts as London’s lap-dogs, and despised the new Union government. Initially, Botha incorporated Hertzog in the executive as Minister of Justice but he served reluctantly and divisively and soon left the government.
Before he left the cabinet he had declared “South Africa can no longer be ruled by non-Afrikaners, by people who do not have the right love for South Africa.” He would have included anyone who put South Africa above all else.
The Peace Treaty of Vereeniging included the following points.
39 000 Uitlanders returned to the Transvaal and the mines opened again. This also meant that the two new British colonies could generate their own income and become financially independent
The faction intent on Afrika voor Afrikanders also earned his enmity for taking too narrow a view. From Hertzog’s agitation there emerged, in January, 1914, a new National party whose slogan was extremist : “The Party is the Nation, and the Nation is the Party.”
Historically there could not have been a worse moment for the union to be so riven. Within months the First World War erupted and South Africa was entangled from the start, both as part of the Empire and as a state sharing a common frontier with the German colony of South- West Africa. Was she to try for neutrality, support Britain or for securities sake incline towards Germany? Smuts was clear. He wrote in a private letter: “I love German thought and culture and hope it will yet do much for mankind. But a stern limit must be set to her political system which is a menace to the world.”
As Defence Minister, it fell to him to widen the division into outright rupture. His government cabled Britain offering to use in South Africa, the defence force which Smuts had quickly and efficiently built, thus freeing British troops for operations elsewhere. The British accepted gratefully, and asked the Union to render a “great and urgent Imperial service” by capturing the ports and the powerful inland radio station of German South West Africa.
It was Botha who led the South-West African campaign in 1915, and he did so with drive and intense concentration. Although the terrain was difficult and the enemy’s communications excellent, his troops, aided towards the end by a contingent under Smuts, trounced them in less than six months.
But his success did not result in the territory’s incorporation, a disappointment to Afrikaners. Instead, at the Paris peace negotiations of 1919, it was merely mandated to the Union.
Smuts’s own campaign which began in 1916 in German East Africa - now Tanzania - did not end in such a clear victory. He headed a mixed army, half-Boer, half British, plus units of Indians, Rhodesians and Africans, against a first-class commander, General P. Von Lettow Vorbeck.
Smuts could not bring the German to battle but kept him on the run until he lost even his nuisance value.
The campaign was still unfinished in 1917 when Botha wired Smuts to give up the chase and, instead, to represent South Africa at the Imperial conference in London to discuss the conduct of the war. It was at the Imperial Conference, which included not only representatives of the dominions, but of India as well, that Smuts for the first time entered the circle of power at the heart of the Empire. The British Establishment showered honours on him. King George V made him a Privy Counselor and a Companion of Honour.
To understand the adulation it is necessary to appreciate the general gloom and war-weariness of Britain not long after the third Christmas of the conflict: the U-boat campaign was at its height, the Americans had not yet entered the war but the Russians were on their way out; and the grey shadows of Verdun and the Somme hung over Britain.
Smuts came as the embodiment of imperial vigour and energy. He was to justify this image and, as a result, he transformed imperial thinking. Smuts did not trust Lloyd George and his new government,particularly since it contained an old adversary, Milner, who was wedded to the cause of Imperial Federation - the welding together of the colonies into a single super state. Like the majority of of the colonial premiers, Smuts wanted a system of independent nations. He now had the opportunity to initiate the transformation of the Empire into something altogether new, which would meet the aspirations of colonial nationalism while still maintaining imperial Britishness.
Aware that the Empire’s future was too complex to be settled in wartime, yet too urgent to be left to later, Smuts solved the dilemma by drafting a resolution which the conference approved.
It amounted to a declaration of intent: Dominion autonomy must be preserved with “all existing powers of self-government and complete control of domestic affairs” ; all must have a voice in matters of common interest. This, he said, must rule out any notions of a federation.
Smuts did not envisage the Empire’s destruction,rather its metamorphosis. Two months after the Imperial Conference, he expressed his ideas in an address to both Houses of Parliament: “The very expression ‘Empire’ is misleading, because it makes people think that we are one community ... But we are a system of nations. We are not a State, but ....many States.....under one flag...not a stationary but a dynamic and evolving system.”
Now he put forward the name that he had long cherished , The British Commonwealth of Nations: “This does not stand for standardisation or denationalisation, but for the fuller richer and more various life “The Commonwealth, “far greater than any Empire that has ever existed,”would rest on three principles : loyalty to the Crown, a sharing of values, and the exchange of ideas through conference.
This was Smuts at his most visionary - and his most practical. It was perhaps the high point of his life. From these beginnings came the Statute of Westminster which in 1931 formalised the existence of the Commonwealth.
When the Imperial Conference of 1917 broke up, Lloyd-George asked Smuts to stay on. There was much to be done, and to the British Prime Minister it seemed that the South African was the man to do it. Smuts was offered but declined command of the forces in Palestine and also a safe seat in the Commons.
Undeterred Lloyd-George made him a member of the British War Cabinet. He was not a U.K. Citizen. He had once fought against Britain. Never had a sovereign nation paid a greater compliment to a stranger within its gates.
The Prime Minister commissioned him to find a defence against the air raids on London and to explore the potential of the new art of aerial warfare. Within two weeks Smuts and his committee had produced a blueprint for the reorganising of air defence and within another month a scheme for setting up a unified air force. Within eight months the Royal Air Force was operational.
He seemed to be everywhere. He went to Palestine and presented Allenby with a brilliantly successful plan of action. He backed Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig - disastrously as it turned out - in his Western Front offensive that led to the bloody tragedies of Passchendale and Ypres.
Farsightedly, he propagandised for a limited victory as opposed to the complete defeat of the enemy. This, he devoutly believed, could be the only civilised starting-point for a lasting and just peace in Europe. Even more importantly, it could be the prelude to an effective League of Nations , which he already envisaged, (a dream he shared with American President Woodrow Wilson.)
At the outbreak of the First World War, Britain asked South Africa “as an urgent and Imperial service” to attack German South West Africa, for this adjacent territory dominated the Atlantic route round the Cape of Good Hope, on which the Allies must depend if cut off from Suez. When hostilities began, the Kaiser’s troops seized the port of Walvis Bay, a British-held enclave. It was the Union’s task directed in part by Smuts - to retake this and to capture two German ports, Swakopmund and Luderitz, as well as a powerful radio station in Windhoek, from which the enemy informed Berlin about British shipping. In January 1915, Prime Minister Louis Botha invaded from the North via Walvis Bay, while Smuts mounted a three-prong sweep that included a westward trek over the arid Kalahari desert. Within six months their combined forces had conquered what Smuts called “the awful desert of German South-West Africa.”
The Fortress Breached
Botha, who was overall commander of the South West African campaign, saw the area as a “natural fortress on a huge scale.” Its central fertile plateau the target of the attack rose 5,000 ft. And was protected by formidable tracts of desert. The Germans, though fielding only 9,000 men against Botha’s 43,000, had the advantage of mobility, moving men and supplies by an excellent rail system that ran down the tableland’s centre and linked with the ports. It was, according to Smuts, “the principal implement of warfare used by the Germans.”
The South Africans quickly captured Walvis Bay and Ludeeritz, and the Germans evacuated Swakopmund. But as the enemy retreated, they tore up the railway lines and poisoned the few desert wells with sheep-dip. Laboriously hauling supplies forward with mule teams, Botha’s men repaired the tracks and dug new water-holes. Then Botha badgered Smuts, who as Defence Minister was still in Pretoria, into rushing the rolling-stock horses and lorries he needed “to give the enemy a good scare.”
Victory on the Plateau
Smuts had feared that the Union would lose many lives in South-West Africa. But the Germans proved surprising unwarlike. “Slim Jannies” three columns met on schedule, surged northwards and, almost unopposed, reached the central rail-line in only three weeks. Then he returned to Pretoria to dispatch vital supplies by rail over the Orange River to Kimberley and from there westwards into South est Africa.
By June 22, 1915, Botha felt certain that he could mop up the remaining resistance within a month. His cavalry easily destroyed the German opposition: once, as Botha’s horsemen broke cover from the bush, the German commander cried “this is not a war, it’s a hippodrome!” Botha’s estimate was out by only a few days the enemy surrendered on July 9. The Germans tried at first to settle for a cease-fire, with each force holding the territory it then occupied, until a final disposition was made at the First World War’s end.
But Botha, though he allowed the Germans to keep their arms and return to their farms, insisted that they acknowledge his victory, confirmed in 1919 when the territory was mandated to the Union.
Apartheid rests on the simple premise that the races should be segregated, with the white man in control. Outnumbered 8 to 1, white barricaded themselves against the ‘black peril’ by segregating blacks in “locations,” forcing adults to carry passes and barring them from white areas except to work.
Most South African ghettos have been mass-produced for the purpose and share the same box-like dinginess and lack of facilities. One, Sophiatown, a suburb of Johannesburg acquired special notoriety when its horrors were revealed by an Anglican clergyman, Father Trevor Huddleston, in 1956. Architecturally, it was less ugly than other ‘locations’ for it was built to house whites and turned over to blacks after a new sewage plant drove the original residents away. By the mid 1950’s it was 2/3 slum, with 70,000 people in an area designed for 30,000. Until it was razed in the 1960’s Sophiatown’s shacks, blisteringly hot under the iron roofs, jammed what were once gardens , and entire families were packed into one room.
His statue stands in Parliament Square, the only commonwealth leader there. His sculptured figure is as different from the others that dot the grass - traditional statesmen in traditional poses - as was the man himself. He is poised on tip-toe, animated, looking forward, the eyes on some distant goal, a slim, but lightly-bearded boy-scout figure
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