GENERAL ARTICLES

SMUTS of Africa

'Few men living today have had a more eventful and extraordinary career than this famous warrior-statesman. Few have been more maligned or acclaimed'

EUGENE C. VAN WYK May 15 1943
GENERAL ARTICLES

SMUTS of Africa

'Few men living today have had a more eventful and extraordinary career than this famous warrior-statesman. Few have been more maligned or acclaimed'

EUGENE C. VAN WYK May 15 1943

SMUTS of Africa

'Few men living today have had a more eventful and extraordinary career than this famous warrior-statesman. Few have been more maligned or acclaimed'

EUGENE C. VAN WYK

FEW STATESMEN in our times have been the recipient of greater universal acclaim and adulation than Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts, and, paradoxically, few have been more maligned by their own flesh and blood.

Few statesmen have had a more eventful and extraordinary career than has South Africa’s famous warrior-statesman. To many he is somewhat of an enigma. To those who have been closely associated with him, his dynamic and versatile genius and his evolution from the guerilla leader of the Boer War into the stern upholder of the prestige of the British Commonwealth is not incomprehensible.

This month marks his seventy-third birthday. Born at Malmesbury, Cape of Good Hope, on May 24, 1870, he is first remembered as a barefooted Boer lad, tending the goats and sheep on his father’s farm. He sold some of his cattle to help defray the expenses of his early education. Although he did not learn to read and write until he was twelve, at the age of sixteen he memorized a Greek grammar in a week.

Jan Smuts studied with distinction at the Victoria College, near Capetown, where, as honor student, it once fell to his lot to deliver an address of welcome on the occasion of a visit by Cecil Rhodes. After graduating with honors, he sailed for England, where he read law at Cambridge University. There he headed, unprecedentedly, both parts of the Law Tripos simultaneously.

On his return to South Africa Smuts settled in Kimberley where he practiced law, and supported the coalition policies of Cecil Rhodes. The latter was hopeful of enlisting the legal talents of the promising young barrister in the promotion of his ideals for imperial expansion.

The ill-starred Jameson Raid, in 1896, which was a racial as well as a political blunder, and the subsequent revelation that Rhodes had been the master-mind behind the plot to overthrow Paul Kruger’s government in the Transvaal, completely disillusioned Smuts who forthwith trekked northward to Johannesburg to live.

My first recollection of General Smuts (he still prefers the title of general) dates back to the eighteen-nineties, in Johannesburg. Although a mere lad at the time, I still vividly recall the rather shy and youthful-looking Smuts, who lived across the street, and who often dropped in for informal little visits with my family. Smuts, who was barely twenty-eight at that time, had already made quite a reputation for himself as a lawyer.

At that time old President Kruger was in a dilemma. He was faced with the selection of one of several candidates for the all-important post of state attorney. “Oom Paul” chose the brilliant young barrister. From that time until the present, the figure of Jan Smuts has loomed largely behind every important event in South African affairs.

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Smuts of Africa

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South Africa has witnessed many bitter and, at times, violent racial as well as political eruptions. One of Smuts’ most notable political duels was with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

Gandhi went to South Africa in 1893. He had intended to stay only for a short time, prior to returning to Bombay, instead he decided to settle in South Africa, where he remained until 1914. Soon after his arrival at Capetown, Gandhi decided to seek certain social and political concessions for the resident Hindu community, which had originally settled there as indentured laborers on the sugar and tea plantations. Later, after the conclusion of the Boer War, Gandhi became more aggressive, and, when he was unsuccessful in having his demands acceded to, he organized the first passive resistance campaign of his career. After a series of conferences with General Smuts, who represented the South African Government, Gandhi openly defied the authorities and disorders followed. On several occasions Smuts had the Indian leader arrested and jailed.

Smuts proved more than a match for Gandhi, who eventually gave up the struggle and left South Africa shortly before the outbreak of the first World War and went to India, there to continue what he had first learned and developed in South Africa —his campaign of passive resistance.

Imbued With a Vision

WHILE he is first and foremost a son of South Africa and has his whole being firmly rooted in its history and traditions Smuts has at all times been imbued with a vision which transcends the boundaries of his native land and enables him to obtain an all-embracing view of the outside world and to grasp its complex problems.

There has always been much of the I Rhodes outlook in Smuts and the big thing has always fascinated him.

; The combatting of class and religious ! hatreds, the encouragement of closer racial co-operation between Boer and ; Briton, and the promotion of world peace, have at all times been dominant characteristics of his political creed.

Four decades ago, Jan Smuts bitterly but bravely fought against ! the British, when his hard-hitting commandos ranged across the trackless South African veld, and relentI Í lessly raided British lines of com; munications. Since then he has I waged two wars to help preserve the Commonwealth.

One day last autumn, as the light waned over a grey Thames, Smuts, a slim erect and soldierly figure, was wildly acclaimed at an unusual assemblage of the Parliament of I Westminster.

The occasion, described by Prime ! Minister Winston Churchill as “un: precedented in many ways,” was a ! ceremonial tribute, accorded to a sagacious leader, a fearless warrior, and a distinguished scholar. It was the first time that a statesman from the Empire oversea ever had broadcast an address before the combined membership of the Houses of Lords and Commons.

The meeting that day in the great historic hall was unique for yet another reason, in that it constituted a striking vindication of that imperialism which is founded on the free and voluntary association of self-governing peoples and tenaciously combats its mortal antithesis, the pseudo-empire of self-chosen master races based on brute force.

Never Admits Defeat

SMUTS has at times been accused by his political adversaries of being intellectually arrogant and not spiritually accessible. The truth, however, is that his mind is unusually swift and that he cannot bear the hampering association of slower minds. Interested as he is in philosophy and metaphysics he has nevertheless an extremely practical mind in everyday affairs.

The former Boer warrior never admits final defeat, but bides his time, unmoved by the abuse that has sometimes been showered upon him by his implacable foes.

There was an incident in the Union House of Assembly at Capetown, shortly after Smuts’ return from the Paris peace conference, in 1919. The Nationalists assailed Smuts. They accused him of having snubbed a Boer delegation that had vainly sought to see President Woodrow Wilson to enlist help in prevailing upon Lloyd George to grant the former Boer republics the right of self - determination, in accordance with the famous Fourteen Points of the American president.

For days Smuts listened, chin upon hand, to the diatribes and the torrent of abuse. He heard his work sneered at and his motives scorned. Cold, impassive, and wrapped in thought, he said nothing. He neither bowed before the storm nor fought it, but let it pass, to the obvious chagrin of his opponents. Of his carping Nationalist critics he once said: “The little curs bark but the caravan moves on.”

The United Nations’ invasion of French North Africa undoubtedly afforded Marshal Smuts an immeasurable degree of satisfaction. Few men know better the vast importance of Africa in the total scheme of things. He has a working philosophy which can aid in shaping the conflict and help to determine the consequences on the right lines. Even before Italy’s entry into the war, he had, with characteristic foresight, planned a vigorous campaign to forestall Mussolini’s militaristic designs in North Africa.

If Your Maclean’s Is Late

Every effort is made to have your copy arrive on time — but wartime brings transportation difficulties which occasionally may cause your copy to be late. If so, we ask your indulgence. Smuts has from the very outset of | hostilities been an ardent advocate of launching a powerful major offensive from North Africa. After his return to South Africa, in August, from Cairo, where he had conferred with Winston Churchill at the time of the shake-up of the British Command in the Middle East, Smuts declared, “Unless the United Nations clear that most vital theatre of the war, North Africa, the entire war effort will be jeopardized. Once the shores of the Mediterranean have been cleared of the Axis, the end will not be far off.”

The South African leader has long ago felt that a United Nations’ invasion threat somewhere along the Mediterranean, in addition to a similar threat along the English Channel or in the North Sea, would have a definite psychological effect on Hitler and infuse a new element into | the Allies “war of nerves.” The Axis would then be faced with the prodigious task of defending thousands of miles of coast.

A Born Psychologist

GENERAL SMUTS has an unshaken faith in himself and a fierce determination to bend events to his will. A born psychologist, he is at his best when faced with delicate situations that require diplomacy and great tact. His skilful handling of the Welsh Coal miners’ strike in 1917, at the time of the first Great War, is a pertinent example of his shrewdness as a mediator.

Britain’s war effort was being gravely impaired when the Prime j Minister sent Smuts to parley with the strike leaders in the Rhondda | Valley. Faced by an angry throng at Tonypandy, he realized that the ¡ miners were in no mood for speeches I and a repetition of unfulfilled ; promises. He began by asking them : to sing something, as he had often heard that they were great singers. ¡ A miner led off with the singing of “Land of Our Fathers,” in which he was soon joined by the entire throng. Smuts thanked them, and then reminded them that the front lines of battle were as much in Wales as in Flanders. “If the battle is lost I there, you men know as well as I do that the “Land of Our Fathers,” about which you have sung with so much fervor, will be lost, perhaps forever.” The tension was eased and the miners cheered Smuts to the echo. Smuts took the night train back to London, and the miners j returned to their pits.

Smuts was also entrusted with J another important mission. He was ' sent to the Western Front, in the early spring of 1917, by Lloyd George, to report on the general j situation. There he visited the Allied Armies, and conferred with | their leaders.

After his return to London he J advocated the launching of a vigor! ous offensive in Flanders, and warned that to administer “merely a military defeat to the Germans was not enough.” He urged that “a substantial measure of defeat” as well as “real punishment” was necessary “as a lasting lesson to Prussian militarism.” Unless this was done, he emphasized, “Germany would again at some future date become an even more serious menace to the peace of the world.” Mr. Lloyd George, in his War “Memoirs,” credits Smuts’ report as having been largely responsible for the Cabinet’s final agreement to the great Flanders offensive in the Fall of 1917.

Man of Good Humor

THE South African soldier-statesman owes his success as a great leader to intellectual strength and ! character rather than to personal magnetism. Equally proficient in the arts of war and peace, he is a man of imperturbable optimism and good humor. Endowed with a breadth of vision and a keen analytical mind, he has often diagnosed political trends in a manner that has seemed prophetic. His public utterances at the time of the peace negotiations at Versailles are grim examples of j this prescience.

j Ina letter to Mr. Lloyd George at ! the time he warned that “this treaty j breathes a poisonous spirit of revenge I that may yet scorch the fair face, not of a corner of Europe, but of all Europe.” He signed the treaty but only under protest. If his influence had prevailed in Paris against the intrigues and passions of the time the settlement would have been different and the whole course of postwar history might well have been changed.

As far back as 1934 Smuts foresaw the conflict between Japan and the British Commonwealth when in a speech before the Royal Institute of International Affairs, in London, he stated that “the day that Europe calls in the East to redress the balance of the West, it will be an evil day for western civilization and the peace of the world.”

Now almost seventy-three Jan Smuts is still amazingly active and vigorous. He is an indefatigable worker, and has a dynamic energy j that will not let him rest. A South African officer who accompanied him on his recent flight from Pretoria .to London told upon his arrival in England how the party had reached its destination two days ahead of schedule. “The general,” he said, “never seems to get tired and refused to rest at the prearranged stops as he was anxious to get to London without delay for his consultations with Winston Churchill.”

Keen-eyed, ruddy, sprightly of step, the general is still an ardent mountain climber, and at the age i of seventy-one climbed to the top of Capetown’s Table Mountain, which towers to nearly four thousand feet. The general is also a great flying enthusiast and he has flown a total of more than fifty thousand miles during the past two years on flights between the Union of South Africa and the North African battle| fronts, which he has visited on numerous occasions.

One of Jan Smuts’ closest friends, and one of his great admirers, is Winston Churchill. Smuts had his first glimpse of Britain’s great leader during the Boer War, when the latter, along with other British Tommies, was being entrained at Ladysmith, ! in Natal. Churchill had gone to South Africa shortly after the outbreak of hostilities as a war correspondent, but was captured soon after his arrival when the Boers ambushed and derailed an armored train in which he was riding. He did not, however, remain a captive long, and escaped soon after his arrival in Pretoria.

A few years after the South African War, when Smuts was in London, he enlisted the support of Churchill in persuading the British Government to grant responsible government to the former Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Mr. Churchill acquiesced and Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s Government not long afterward granted the Boers self-government. Churchill asked Smuts during his London visit whether the former Boer guerilla leader had really believed that the Boers could have won the war. When the latter said he had not, Churchill enquired why then had the Republicans continued a futile struggle for almost three years? Smuts replied: “We fought for our freedom as you Britishers have always fought for your Empire. We had to fight on—for a good peace and for you to respect us.”

In 1917, when Smuts visited England after his triumphant conquest of Germam East Africa, Churchill wrote an article in a London publication in which he stated “that England deserves to go under,” if she did not make the fullest use of the services of Smuts.

“At this moment,” wrote Churchill, “there arrives in England from the outer marches of the Empire, a new and altogether extraordinary man. The stormy and hazardous roads he has travelled by would fill the acts and scenes of drama. He has warred against us, well we know it. He has quelled rebellion against our own flag with unswerving loyalty and unfailing shrewdness. He has led raids at desperate odds and conquered provinces by scientific strategy. His astonishing career and his versatile achievements are only the index of a profound sagacity and a cool, farreaching comprehension.”

South Africa’s record and imposing contribution in the present conflict is in main due to the leadership of her erudite premier.

When Britain entered the war against Germany on September 3, 1939, the South African Union was dangerously divided as to its course as well as in its allegiance to the British Commonwealth. The late General Barry Hertzog, the premier at that time, and his Nationalist supporters openly espoused a policy of neutrality, which was energetically combatted by Jan Smuts.

An impassioned appeal by South Africa’s great statesman for a forthright declaration of war on Hitler’s Reich was voted by the Dominion’s House of Assembly, by the slim margin of thirteen votes.

When the present global holocaust has ended, and the leaders of the free nations of the world assemble to formulate the terms of an enduring peace and to plan the formidable task of postwar rehabilitation, let it be hoped that the profound wisdom of South Africa’s Grand Old Man— Jan Christiaan Smuts—may reassert itself once again in the cause of humanity, as it has these nearly five decades.