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Who was Jan Smuts?

Updated on December 2, 2016

Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870-1950) was a South African soldier and statesman. He first won fame as a Boer guerrilla leader in the South African War, and he went on to become prime minister of South Africa. He was one of the chief advocates of the concept of the Commonwealth of Nations and a major builder of both the League of Nations and the United Nations.

Early Career

Of Dutch and French Huguenot descent, Smuts was born near Riebeek West, Cape Colony, on May 24, 1870. He graduated from Victoria College, Stellenbosch, in 1891. At Christ's College, Cambridge, he studied law and achieved a brilliant scholastic record. He was admitted to the bar in 1894.

Smuts returned to South Africa in 1895 to practice law in Cape Town. He soon became active in local politics, which were seething with hostility between the Boers and the British. At first he supported Cecil Rhodes, prime minister of Cape Colony, whose declared aim was Anglo-Boer cooperation. But after Rhodes' involvement in the Jameson Raid, an attempt to overthrow the Afrikaner government of Transvaal, Smuts renounced his British citizenship and moved to Transvaal. Made state attorney in 1898, he worked to bring about a peaceful settlement of Anglo-Boer differences.

War and Union

When the South African War erupted in 1899, Smuts did administrative work for the Transvaal government. In 1900 he joined the Boer Army and eventually commanded the guerrilla forces in Cape Colony. His daring leadership won worldwide recognition. While besieging the British at O'okiep he was called to Vereeniging to participate in the peace conference that ended the war on May 31, 1902.

After the war Smuts and his former commander, Gen. Louis Botha, worked together to achieve an alliance between Boer and British groups in South Africa. In 1904 they formed a political organization, Het Volk (The People), which sent Smuts to Britain to obtain self-government for the defeated Boer republics- Transvaal and Orange Free State. After self-government was granted in 1906 and 1907, Smuts and Botha directed their efforts toward the unification of the former Boer republics and the British Cape and Natal colonies. Success came in 1910 with the establishment of the Union of South Africa as a self-governing member of the developing British Commonwealth. Botha became prime minister, while Smuts served as minister of defense (1910-1920).

World War I

In 1914, after South Africa joined the Allies in World War I, Smuts took command of the country's armed forces. He participated in the conquest of German South West Africa, and in 1916 he was commissioned a lieutenant general in the British Army and was named commander in chief of Allied forces in East Africa, where he led the campaign against the Germans. While in London in 1917 to attend the Imperial War Conference, he was asked by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George to serve in the Imperial War Cabinet. His accomplishments during this period included the organization of the air defense of London, the reorganization of the Royal Flying Corps into the Royal Air Force, and the organization of the War Priorities Committee, over which he presided.

By this time, Smuts had become a leader in the gradual transformation of the British Empire into a commonwealth of free and equal nations bound together by ties of language, tradition, and self-interest. One of the principal originators of the League of Nations, he published a pamphlet in 1918 setting forth many of the ideas that helped shape the League. With Prime Minister Botha he represented South Africa at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.

Prime Minister

When Botha died in 1919, Smuts became prime minister. At the Imperial Conference in London in 1921, he persuaded some Irish leaders to enter into the negotiations with the British government that led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the establishment of the Irish Free State. But at home Smuts was confronted with serious political problems as a result of industrial unrest and Afrikaner nationalism. His South African party was defeated at the polls in 1924 by a coalition of the Nationalist and Labour parties, led by Gen. James Hertzog.

For the new few years Smuts shunned politics and pursued his scientific and philosophical interests. In 1926 he published his Holism and Evolution, a study of the creative forces in nature. He returned to politics in 1933 during the worldwide depression, joining a coalition government with Hertzog as prime minister and himself as deputy prime minister and minister of justice. The two leaders cooperated in domestic matters, including Hertzog's racial segregation legislation. But they split in 1939 on the issue of whether South Africa should join the Allies in World War II. Smuts succeeded Hertzog as prime minister that year, when the latter's policy of neutrality was defeated by Parliament.

World War II

Smuts was commander in chief of South Africa's forces during the war and in 1941 was made a field marshal in the British Army. He visited the North African and European theaters of war and was in frequent touch with other Allied leaders. In 1945 he attended the UN Conference in San Francisco, where he played a major role in drafting the UN charter.

In the general election of May 1948, Smuts' government was defeated by the National party, led by Daniel F. Malan. Smuts served as leader of the opposition until his death, on his farm in Irene, near Pretoria, on Sept. 11, 1950.

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