En­e­mies in bat­tle,friends in life

The Sunday Independent - - BOOKS -

WHEN, on Septem­ber 4, 1939, Jan Smuts ex­ulted in – only nar­rowly – win­ning the par­lia­men­tary vote to re­ject prime min­is­ter JBM Hert­zog’s neu­tral­ity mo­tion and take South Africa into the World War I on Bri­tain’s side, he sealed his place in world af­fairs, and his af­fec­tion in the heart of a man who was once his en­emy on the An­glo-Boer War bat­tle­field.

Gen­eral Smuts’s mo­tion that the Union should refuse to adopt a pol­icy of neu­tral­ity in the war was car­ried by a mere 13 votes – 80 to 67. But, if the grounds for an elec­tion were surely over­whelm­ing, that’s not how it worked out, and Churchill, for one, was grate­ful.

He had got to know Smuts well by then, and liked him. The feel­ing was mu­tual, and, equally, Smuts rev­elled in the scope his friend­ship pro­vided for play­ing a role in the in­ter­na­tional scene, where he was widely ad­mired for his tal­ents and en­ergy.

But if dark clouds hov­ered over Europe – and even the world – in 1939, calling for the re­solve that Smuts and Churchill shared, the for­mer An­glo-Boer War commando was per­haps weaker at home than he re­alised. And he could be said to have been weaker on two fronts; an in­suf­fi­ciency of po­lit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion that pre­vented him from see­ing that a post-white man’s world was not in it­self in­im­i­cal to the princi- “Jan Smuts’s rep­u­ta­tion has not been as en­dur­ing”.

If his im­pact on his­tory could not be com­pared to Churchill’s, he was nev­er­the­less “also among the most re­mark­able men of the 20th cen­tury”.

“For those who don’t know him,” Steyn goes on, “Smuts was a man of ex­cep­tional tal­ents and achieve­ments – a Cam­bridge-ed­u­cated lawyer, guer­rilla fighter, sol­dier, philoso­pher, sci­en­tist and po­lit­i­cal leader, a mem­ber of Bri­tain’s war cabi­net in two world wars and the only per­son to be present at the cer­e­monies at the end of both those wars. He played a lead­ing role in the found­ing of the League of Na­tions in the af­ter­math of World War I, and helped draft the Char­ter of the UN Orgni­sa­tion after World War II.”

But as South Africa drifted into global ig­nominy as a re­sult of apartheid, Smuts achieve­ments were over­shad­owed, and his po­lit­i­cal prag­ma­tism painted as fail­ure.

Steyn’s book closes with the fol­low­ing poignant coda which seems at once to set the two men apart, yet welds, them too: “Win­ston Churchill will al­ways be cel­e­brated as one of his­tory’s tow­er­ing fig­ures, the saviour of his na­tion and upholder of Western demo­cratic val­ues. And Jan Smuts – as the pho­to­graph on the desk at Chartwell re­minds us – was his most en­dur­ing, trusted friend.”

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