Jan Christiaan Smuts
Smuts was a prominent South African conciliator, nation builder, international statesman, military/political/university leader, naturalist and philosopher. In addition to holding various cabinet posts, he twice served as prime minister of the Union of South Africa. Although Smuts had originally advocated racial segregation and opposed the enfranchisement of black Africans, his views changed and he backed the Fagan Commission's findings that complete segregation was impossible. Largely for taking this position, he lost the leadership of South Africa to the apartheid National Party.
He was a staunch opponent of colonialism and led a Boer Commando in the Second Boer War for the Transvaal. During the First World War, he led the armies of South Africa against Germany, capturing German South-West Africa and commanding the British Army in East Africa. From 1917 to 1919, he was also one of the members of the British War Cabinet and he was instrumental in the founding of what became the Royal Air Force (RAF). He became a field marshal in the British Army in 1941, and served in the Imperial War Cabinet under Winston Churchill. He was the only man to sign both of the peace treaties ending the First and Second World Wars.
He was an outstanding matriculant and won a scholarship for overseas study. He chose the University of Cambridge where he studied law and wrote a book Walt Whitman: A Study in the Evolution of Personality, which engendered the thoughts behind his wide-ranging philosophy of holism.
Smuts graduated from Cambridge with a double First and won numerous academic prizes and accolades. Lord Todd, the Master of Cambridge’s Christ's College assessed Smuts as follows: "in 500 years of the College's history, of all its members, past and present, three had been truly outstanding: John Milton, Charles Darwin and Jan Smuts."
Smuts began his career practicing law in the Cape Colony, but soon turned to politics and journalism. Initially, he was an advocate and supporter of Cecil Rhodes, but after the Jameson Raid, repudiated him and moved north becoming state attorney in the capital of the South African Republic, Pretoria. He headed the SAR in failed discussions with the British.
After the British invaded the Boer republics, he was a key assistant to President Paul Kruger. Later during the war, became a combatant, first serving with great distinction under General Koos de la Rey and later with his own command.
Smuts played a leading role in persuading his fellow Afrikaners to negotiate peace and featured strongly in subsequent negotiations. He joined with the other former Transvaal generals to form the People's Party and served as deputy head under Louis Botha. Smuts and Botha negotiated full self-government for the Transvaal within British South Africa and helped to develop a constitution for the Transvaal. Within the new government, he filled two key cabinet positions: Colonial Secretary and Education Secretary. During this time, he began his long association with Mohandas Gandhi.
He subsequently took the leading role in forming the Union of South Africa and headed three key ministries: Interior, Mines, and Defence in the resulting government. When a small-scale miners' dispute flared into a full-blown strike, Smuts resolved the situation personally. However, when peace broke down and there were threats of a revolution, Smuts declared martial law and put down the rebellion.
World War I
During the First World War, once again General Smuts suppressed the Maritz Rebellion and led forces in the conquest of German East Africa.
Early in 1917 Smuts left Africa and went to London and served in the Imperial War Cabinet and the War Policy Committee. He authored the “Smuts Report” which led to the creation of the Royal Air Force.
Smuts was a key negotiator at the Paris Peace Conference that ended World War I. He favored reconciliation with Germany and limited reparations (and persisted in this between the World Wars), and advocated the creation of the League of Nations. Had his wise advice been followed by world leaders, there may never have been a ‘Nazi Germany’.
Smuts returned to South Africa and was elected prime minister, serving until 1924. Thereafter, Smuts went to Ireland to help broker an armistice and peace deal between the warring British and Irish nationalists.
Holism and related academic work
While in academia, as a botanist, Smuts collected plants extensively over southern Africa, and went on several botanical expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s.
Smuts pioneered the concept of ‘holism’, which he defined as "[the] fundamental factor operative towards the creation of wholes in the universe" in his 1926 book, Holism and Evolution. This laid the philosophical foundation for the biological science ecology.
Smuts and segregation
Like virtually all local and British politicians at the time, Smuts was a supporter of segregation of the races. In general, Smuts' view of Africans was patronising, he saw them as immature human beings that needed the guidance of whites, an attitude that reflected the common perceptions of most non-Africans in his lifetime.
In contrast, although Gandhi and Smuts were adversaries, they respected and even admired one another. In 1939, the then once again Prime Minister Smuts wrote a highly complimentary essay marking Gandhi's 70th birthday.
By 1948 he went further away from his previous views on segregation when supporting the recommendations of the Fagan Commission that Africans should be recognised as permanent residents of White South Africa and not only temporary workers that really belonged in the reserves. This was in direct opposition to the policies of the National Party. Indeed, he made his case clearly saying:
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.
Thus, it is grossly unfair to lump Smuts with die-hard racists such as J.G. Strydom and H.F. Verwoerd.
Second World War
When Prime Minister J. B. M. Hertzog was deposed for advocating neutrality towards Nazi Germany in 1939, Smuts became prime minister for the second time and spearheaded in the war against Hitler. He served Winston Churchill in the Imperial War Cabinet and was appointed a field marshal of the British Army. He was even considered as a possible replacement as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, should Churchill die or otherwise become incapacitated.
In May 1945, he represented South Africa at the drafting of the United Nations Charter and was a potential nominee for the Nobel Prize in Peace.
After the war
In domestic policy, Smuts instituted a number of social security reforms. Old-age pensions and disability grants were extended to Indians and Africans in 1944 and 1947. The Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1941 “insured all employees irrespective of payment of the levy by employers and increased the number of diseases covered by the law,” and the Unemployment Insurance Act of 1946 introduced unemployment insurance on a national scale, albeit with exclusions.