Jan Christian Smuts – enigmas and contradictions writ large - Part 2

Statue of Smuts in front of the South African National Gallery in Cape Town
Statue of Smuts in front of the South African National Gallery in Cape Town

Defeat and triumph

"The fall of Smuts left big questions about the direction of South African history, perhaps even the viability of the Union under the terms of 1910, still largely undecided." - from T.R.H. Davenport: South Africa a Modern History (Macmillan 1977)

The loss of the 1924 elections "...released me from burdens which I had continuously borne for more than 18 years" Smuts wrote in the introduction to his major work, Holism and Evolution (first published in 1926, republished 1987).

Smuts was to remain in opposition until he again became Deputy Prime Minister in the Coalition Government formed with General J.B.M. Hertzog's Nationalist Party in March 1933.

The experience of the Coalition was to lead to a more formal fusion of the two parties the following year.

The Fusion Government was to last only five years. It was rent apart with great bitterness by the events of September 1939 in Europe which led to Smuts again being called on to lead a government, this time through the turbulence of another World War.

He remained in power for less than ten years, losing a general election again in 1948 to the renewed Nationalist Party of hard-line apartheid proponent Dr Daniel Francois Malan.

Smuts died less than three years later, still regarded as a controversial and divisive figure in some quarters and as a heroic intellect of humanism in others.

The study at Doornkloof in which Smuts wrote, "in his cramped and difficult longhand", the manuscript of "Holism and Evolution"
The study at Doornkloof in which Smuts wrote, "in his cramped and difficult longhand", the manuscript of "Holism and Evolution"
The "Place of Quiet" on the Smuts farm Doornkloof, dedicated to "all who in silence seek harmony and peace for all mankind."
The "Place of Quiet" on the Smuts farm Doornkloof, dedicated to "all who in silence seek harmony and peace for all mankind."

Holism

After the electoral defeat of 1924 Smuts happily retired to his farm Doornkloof in Irene, near Pretoria. Here he took long walks over the koppie (hillock) which is such a prominent feature of his farmland.

On his walks, usually solitary, he collected samples of the grasses he loved to study, always on the lookout for a new species.

Of this time of his life the author of the booklet on Smuts entitled One Man in His Time (1980), Phyllis Scarnell Lean recorded this anecdote (taken from Hancock's magisterial biography of Smuts):

"A distinguished American woman botanist, on a visit to South Africa, was one of the party (of a botanical expedition). She asked the Professor in charge to identify a grass. He referred the question to General Smuts who named the grass and vividly described its distribution and ecology. 'How is it,' exclaimed the lady, 'that I am learning all this not from the Professor but from you, a General?' 'But my dear lady, I'm only a general in my spare time.'"

Smuts coined the term "holism" to be the name of his personal philosophy of the connectedness of all life. Smuts was dissatisfied with mechanical, determinist interpretations of Darwin's great theory and saw his concept of "holism" as a way of transcending the limitations, as he saw them, of that theory:

"The whole tendency of Darwinism therefore has been vastly to add to the dominance of the mechanistic hypothesis, which has through it come to extend its sway from the kingdom of matter to that of life."

Smuts opposed this mechanistic view with an overarching view of the role of holism in evolution:

"It is the nature of the universe to strive for and slowly, but in ever-increasing measure, to attain wholeness, fullness, blessedness."

The whole, in Smuts's view, attains an almost transcendent reality, capable of conscious direction:

"The holistic nisus (I had to look this word up: "an effort or endeavor to realize an aim") which rises like a living fountain from the very depths of the universe is the guarantee that failure does not await us, that the ideals of Well-being, of Truth, Beauty and Goodness are firmly grounded in the nature of things, and will not eventually be endangered or lost. Wholeness, healing, holiness - all expressions and ideas springing from the same root in language as in experience - in part here and now, and eventually more fully and truly. The rise and self-perfection of wholes in the Whole is the slow but unerring process and goal of this Holistic universe."

Smuts sent a copy of this work to Albert Einstein who later remarked that in the next millennium two concepts would be the keys to human thought, his own theory of relativity and Smuts's concept of holism. He also stated that Smuts was one of only 11 people who properly understood relativity.

Not all critics would be so approving.H.C Armstrong, in his 1939 biography of Smuts, Grey Steel, subtitled 'A Study In Arrogance', wrote: "And as the creed of Smuts, which welled up out of his very being, it was Smuts himself, for it was based on a stupendous intellectual arrogance. It was the Philosophy of Supreme Human Arrogance."


"The Stuka dive bomber, symbol of the Blitzkrieg in Poland in 1939. This terrifying aircraft swept all before it in the first year of the war." from http://rememberwhen.gazettelive.co.uk/2009/08/the-day-war-broke-out.html
"The Stuka dive bomber, symbol of the Blitzkrieg in Poland in 1939. This terrifying aircraft swept all before it in the first year of the war." from http://rememberwhen.gazettelive.co.uk/2009/08/the-day-war-broke-out.html
Hertzog (left) and Smuts outside Parliament in Cape Town. Image from Lean "One Man in his Time"
Hertzog (left) and Smuts outside Parliament in Cape Town. Image from Lean "One Man in his Time"

Politics and war again

When in 1933 Smuts entered into a coalition with his old Boer War comrade and later political rival General J.B.M. Hertzog it marked the return of the philosopher-warrior to a leadership role in South Africa.

This coalition led in the following year to a fusion of the two parties, Smuts's South African Party and Hertzog's Nationalist Party, into the United South African Nationalist Party (more commonly known as the United Party). The so-called "Fusion Government" which then took office had Smuts as Deputy Prime Minister in a Hertzog-led cabinet.

The fusion government though, was really an administration which papered over the deep cracks which still remained in white politics - there were those who were loyal to the British Empire and those who were avowed republicans wanting to create of South Africa a Boer Republic similar to the republics which existed before the Boer War.

The first tears in the paper occurred when Dr D.F. Malan, arch-proponent of "apartheid" took his followers out of the Nationalist Party and formed the "Gesuiwerde Nasionale Party (Purified National Party)" with explicit republican ideals.

The term of the Fusion Government was largely taken up with debate on the franchise of non-white in the Union and the issue of the so-called "poor whites". On both of these issues the Purified Nationalists won support and increased their parliamentary representation in the 1938 General Election.

Squabbles about the National Anthem and the Voortrekker Centenary celebrations did not distract Smuts from his wider vision - he saw the Sudeten Crisis as a more important portent than any petty political maneuvering in the Cabinet.

The paper over the cracks was finally torn apart by Hitler's Stukas screaming down over Poland as his troops marched into that sad country on the morning of 1 September 1939.

On 4 September Hertzog introduced a motion in the House to reaffirm South Africa's neutrality in the European conflict. Smuts introduced an amendment to break off relations with Germany. The amendment carried by a margin of 13 votes and Hertzog resigned as Prime Minister.

On 6 September the Governor General, Sir Patrick Duncan, called on Smuts to form a new Government and so the Fusion was brought to a dramatic end.


Field Marshall Smuts. Note baton in hands. Image Smuts House Museum.
Field Marshall Smuts. Note baton in hands. Image Smuts House Museum.
King George VI's note to Smuts appointing him Field Marshall. Image Smuts House Museum
King George VI's note to Smuts appointing him Field Marshall. Image Smuts House Museum

Smuts rises to the occasion

"Smuts took South Africa into the Second World War out of concern for the future of the human race, and in particular for that of Europe, 'this glorious mother continent of Western civilisation - the proudest achievement of the human spirit up to date', which seemed to be in danger of destruction in the short term by Hitler, or in the longer term by Stalin." - from South Africa a Modern History by T.R.H Davenport (Macmillan, 1977).

Smuts was invited almost immediately to join the War Cabinet by his friend Winston Churchill who had become Prime Minister in the United Kingdom after the fall of Chamberlain.

In May 1941 Smuts became, in perhaps the supreme irony of his life, a Field Marshall, an appointment made by the King, George VI. So the former rebel Boer soldier who had made such a nuisance of himself to the Imperial British forces in the Boer War, became himself a British soldier of the highest rank possible.

Smuts's contribution in the War Cabinet was so highly valued by his colleagues that a plan ws mooted by Churchill's secretary, Sir John Colville, that should Churchill become incapacitated or die in office, the King should appoint Smuts Prime Minister, an idea the King was in favour of. Churchill lived for another 25 years this plan did not materialise, but it demonstrated Smuts's closeness to the British establishment of the time, a closeness which would cost him later.

Smuts and Churchill, 1942. Image Lean "One Man in His Time".
Smuts and Churchill, 1942. Image Lean "One Man in His Time".
Smuts examining graves of South African servicemen at Castiglione, Italy, 1945. Image Lean "One Man in His Time".
Smuts examining graves of South African servicemen at Castiglione, Italy, 1945. Image Lean "One Man in His Time".
The bedroom at Doornkloof used by King Paul and Queen Frederika.
The bedroom at Doornkloof used by King Paul and Queen Frederika.

South African contribution to the war effort

On the international front the major concern of the Smuts government at the start of the war was the defence of the Cape sea route, vital for trade and the war effort.

The Defence Act required that South African military personnel be deployed only in the Southern African regioin. As a result, the Government called for volunteers to serve further afield. In the end some 200000 people in South African uniforms served in North Africa, Italy and Madagascar. Around 9000 were killed.

Of the 200000 a small proportion were blacks, who were not allowed any com,bat roles, being restricted to, in Mary Benson's words (The Struggle for a Birthright, Penguin, 1966) "...digging, driving, fetching and carrying."

African National Congress leader the Reverend James Calata commented: "If the Government of South Africa does not get Africans to volunteer for service they must examine the situation from within. I am afraid they are themselves to blame for the present attitude of mind of the Africans. Hitler had absolutely nothing to do with it."

South African forces were active in the liberation of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), in the desert campaign against Rommel's Afrika Korps and in the advance of the US Fifth Army up Italy. Many South Africans were captured and spent time in Axis concentration camps.

Smuts and his wife offered the hospitality of their home Doornkloof to the exiled King and Queen of the Helenes, King Paul and Queen Frederika, and their family. Smuts was asked to be the godfather of the Princess Irene in 1941.

Smuts addressing a General Session of the United Nations. Image Lean "One Man in His Time"
Smuts addressing a General Session of the United Nations. Image Lean "One Man in His Time"
The Royal Family at Doornkloof, 1947.  Image Lean "One Man in His Time"
The Royal Family at Doornkloof, 1947. Image Lean "One Man in His Time"

Victory in war, defeat at home

Two factors influenced African opinion positively during the war - Smuts's reputation as a liberal voice, and the contribution made by black servicemen to the war effort. These hopes, however, were not realised in the event, in spite of some promising indications.

Smuts was regarded as a man of vision and statesmanship all over the world, but in South Africa he dashed the aspirtations of blacks who had hoped for a liberalising of their conditions and he was regarded by Afrikaners as a "volksverraier (traitor to the people)".

Smuts wrote "Civilisation is one body and we are all members of one another." But this deep understanding somehow stopped at the boundary between black and white in his home country.

Mary Benson wrote: "But Smuts, the world statesman, remained incapable of thinking in large concepts about home affairs. He did not see that the Union had come to the end of an era."

Because of the high esteem in which he was held, Smuts was able to play a leading role in the San Francsisco Conference of April 1945, where the seeds of the organisation which would become the United Nations Organisation were sown. British delegate (and later Prime Minister of the UK) Sir Anthony Eden described Smuts as "the doyen of the Conference - quite unrivalled in intellectual attributes and unsurpassed in experience and authority."

When Smuts attended the Paris Peace Conference in August 1946 he was the only participant who had also attended the Versailles Conference in 1919. At the conference he made an impassioned appeal for a "new spirit among the nations."

At a reception after a 1946 session of the United Nations the President of the ANC, Dr A.B. Xuma, who was attending because of the debate about South Africa's policies towards blacks, was asked if he had met Smuts, who was also present.

"No" replied Xuma, who was then taken to meet the Prime Minister. Smuts shook his hand and said, "My dear man, what are you doing here?"

"Well, sir, I have had to fly 10000 miles to meet my Prime Minister," said Xuma. "Man alive," Smuts replied, "let's get together. You know, Xuma, I am a most misunderstood man."

They did not meet again.

A highlight of the last year of Smuts's term as Prime Minister was the Royal Visit of 1947 when King George VIO, Queen Elizabeth and the Princesses Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth) and Margaret came to Southern Africa.

In 1948 Smuts and his United Party faced a General Election which was held on 26 May. The United Party did not retain an overall majority and the Nationalists of Dr D.F. Malan formed a coalition with the small Afrikaner Party to form a government, a government openly committed to a policy of racial discrimination.

Smuts's bed at Doornkloof
Smuts's bed at Doornkloof

Final years

In May 1950 Smuts turned 80 and his birthday was celebrated with festivities all over South Africa.

The biggest celebration was held in Johannesburg where thousands lined the streets to watch as Smuts drove by in a car with the Mayor.

On 27 May he suffered a coronary thrombosis follwed by pneumonia. He was sick for some seven weeks.

He enjoyed an afternoon of fun with his grandchildren on his farm Doornkloof on 11 September. The next day he was taken for a drive in the country and returned to the evening meal, where he presided at his usual place at the head of the table. At 7.30 that evening, while sitting on the side of his bed and with his two daughters, he died.

His son has pointed out the fact that on that evening passed out of life "the last member of Kruger's Government, the last senior General of the Boer War, the last Minister of the old Transvaal Colonial Government, the last member of the National Convention, the last but one particpant in the Peace of Versailles and the last member of the War Cabinet of the First World War."

The tragedy of Smuts is that for all the accolades he won internationally, he was unable in the end to apply his vision to the most important question of South Africa - how to ensure that all the people of the country could share in the goods of the country in peace and with justice.

Part 1 - t

In Part 1 I write about Smuts's birth, early education, role in the Boer War and the start of his political career.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2011

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Comments 27 comments

Mentalist acer profile image

Mentalist acer 5 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

Thanks for shedding light on this visionary Tony.;)


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Bryan - thanks for stopping by and commenting. Much appreciated.

Love and peace

Tony


sligobay profile image

sligobay 5 years ago from east of the equator

Thanks Tony for a wonderful history lesson relating to a great and brilliant leader of the twentieth century who was totally unknown to me. As a correspondent of Albert Einstein and contemporary of Churchill and George VI and postwar attendant at both peace conferences; Smuts was a great world leader. You have filled a notable gap in my supposed knowledge of modern history. My visits to your hubs never lack great value to me. Thank you.


Mary Neal 5 years ago

Thanks for another enlightening, well-written article and this quote: "Civilization is one body and we are all members of one another."

Blessings,

Mary


De Greek profile image

De Greek 5 years ago from UK

I liked the phrase "I'm only a general in my spare time.'"

As a fulltime moron myself, I can only envy this :-)


Fay Paxton 5 years ago

Tony, Smuts was indeed a man before his time. Prior to reading your hub, I knew very little about his courage and philosophy. Thank you for this historical account.

voted up/very useful


amillar profile image

amillar 5 years ago from Scotland, UK

He didn't live to see, "all the people of the country... share in the goods of the country in peace and with justice", but I suspect he knew that it had to happen sometime.

An interesting read about the history of you country, Tony up and useful.


justom profile image

justom 5 years ago from 41042

Thanks for another great lesson Tony. As always a well written account of history that I had little knowledge of. Thanks!! Peace!! Tom


Sophia Angelique 5 years ago

My mother cried her heart out when Smuts lost the election in 1948. Both my parents were members of the UP until they joined the Progs shortly after they formed. I recall Sir De Villiers Graff (took over leadership of the UPs) being a visitor in our home and meeting him. I was just a kid. My mother was going to run for parliament but then it never materialized. I joined the Progs in 1966 as a junior member when Jan Steytler was head of it and stayed a member until apartheid came to an end. It was a long fight. Smuts would have made South Africa a great country.


Dim Flaxenwick profile image

Dim Flaxenwick 5 years ago from Great Britain

You are a mine of information . This hub was a fantastic read. Thank you.


always exploring profile image

always exploring 5 years ago from Southern Illinois

Very interesting Tony. The last paragraph is sad, that he was unable to ensure all the people could share equally. Thank you. Well written.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Mary - thanks for stopping by. Glad you liked the quote.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Dimitris - anyone less moronic than you is hard to imagine, really! Glad you enjoyed that little story - an all-too-rare indication that the old man did have something approaching a sense of humour!

Thanks for stopping by

Love and peace

Tony


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 5 years ago

Nicely done as you always do Tony! God bless you Tony! Thank you for being a great friend!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Fay - thanks for stopping byh. Glad you enjoyed the read.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Amillar - he did indeed know that it had to come sometime. He once said: “The idea that the Natives must all be removed and confined in their own kraals is in my opinion the greatest nonsense I have ever heard.”

His problem was that he could see no way to get the (white) electorate to along with him in bringing change.

Thanks for stopping by, friend.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Tom - thanks for stopping by and you are most welcome!

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Sophia - my folks were just as devastated and both joined the Spingbok Legion and the Torch Commando as a result. They were also Progs after Steytler left the UP. My dad even stood as a candidate for them for the Provincial Coucil. Lost the election but retained his deposit!

Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Dim - thanks for stopping by and for the kind words. Glad you found it interesting.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Ruby - as always I appreciate your coming roundand commenting. It is sad that he was unable to achieve that. Thanks for the kind words.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Micky - I thank you, my friend! For stopping by and commenting, for being a fearless friend and writing such great Hubs.

Thanks, brotherman!

Love and peace

Tony


vietnamvet68 profile image

vietnamvet68 5 years ago from New York State

great write and very interesting story Tony, thanks I learned something new today.

God Bless


mysterylady 89 profile image

mysterylady 89 5 years ago from Florida

Part 2 is even more interesting than Part 1 - though I did find the enigmas of Part 1 very thought-provoking.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

VV - thanks so much for stopping by. Gld you learned something from my humble offering.

Love and peace

Tony


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

MysteryLady - thank you so much. Glad you enjoyed this and the previous one.

Love and peace

Tony


lionel1 profile image

lionel1 5 years ago

Simply amazing, as I've already said when it comes to history you're the man.


Matt Jamneck 3 years ago

Thank you for this concise and objective account of the "Oubaas". General Smuts was of course greatly misunderstood by his own people which is still the case today. Many deemed him to be vain, arrogant, self-centered and insensitive to the needs of the common man. Ironically, Smuts was the opposite - he was a very private person with a sensitive soul. Author Piet Beukes in his books went to great lengths to remove the ignorance which existed about Smuts' true personality. In this regard Beukes deserves our gratitude. He in fact knew the Oubaas rather well as he was, for example, one of the delegates who accompanied General Smuts when he attended a session of the United Nations in 1946.

I, for one, will always treasure his memory. One can actually sense his presence when one visits his home at Doornkloof, now the Jan Smuts museum.

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