Enemies in battle,friends in life
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.”