‘Churchill & Smuts,The Friendship’,reveals the remarkable bond between two leaders history has treated very differently,writes
ples he professed, and an insufficiency of political foresight, which led to his defeat by his own people in less than a decade.
The newspaper archives leave a telling trace of Afrikaner disenchantment at the moment South Africa entered the war.
A day after Smuts slim victory against Hertzog, the prime minister resigned, his statement reported on September 6, 1939, containing an ominously accurate prediction.
While Hertzog was surely wrong in his parochial view of Nazi doings in Europe having “not even a subordinate” relevance to South Africa, he predicted with pinpoint accuracy one of the chief consequences of Smuts’ determination to join Churchill in fighting Hitler.
“Fortunately,” Hertzog said, “this step by General Smuts will also have the effect of promoting the unity of the Afrikaans-speaking people, for which such a fervent desire has existed for many years, to such an extent that we can confidently anticipate its early realisation. The people will later be given an opportunity of deciding on the political form which this unanimity should take, but I would like to state here that even at this stage the leader of the Nationalist Party has assured us of the full support of his party in this struggle for the maintenance of our freedom.”
Smuts had a war to fight before having to face the antipathy of Afrikaner nationalists in 1948, but when he did, his defeat – as Richard Steyn records in his immensely readable Churchill & Smuts, The Friendship – shocked the old man, according to his son, Jannie, “more gravely than any event I have witnessed”.
Yet, perhaps, there might have been some consolation for him in much that had come before, and much of it associated with what Steyn brings out to have been the almost certainly overlooked close bond between wartime titan Churchill and his four years older confrère and trusted sounding board, the Cambridge-educated Smuts.
What started out as an unlikely friendship grew into one of the closest and most enduring either man had.
Steyn shares the amusing insight of Churchill’s long-time personal physician, Lord Moran, that “his patient’s inability to pick the right people (as firm friends) was because he wasn’t sufficiently interested in anyone else but himself ”.
Churchill himself, he records, referred to his “busy, selfish life”. Smuts, likewise, had “few intimate friends”. Yet, these two “egocentric, self-driven, hard-working singular characters” were drawn to each other for more than half a century.
A touching token of this bond is provided in the book in the picture of Churchill’s writing desk at his country home, Chartwell, typically featuring nearly a dozen framed photog raphs, of himself and his family, along with a miniature bust or two, and an ashtray large enough to accommodate his cigar. One among the portraits stands out. It is a photograph of Jan Smuts.
They first encountered each other in the last months of the 19th century, just outside Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal, in the opening phase of the Anglo-Boer War.
Smuts, not yet a commando leader but a government lawyer in the Transvaal republic, was paying a visit to the Natal war zone when the audacious Churchill, officially a war correspondent for a London newspaper, but just as willing to muck in with some warring as the need arose, had been captured by the Boers. Though neither wrote about the encounter in their war memoirs, the memory lingered for both. Smuts recalled his opponent as a “scrubby, squat figure of a man, unshaved”, who was “furious, venomous, just like a viper”, and Churchill – at Smuts’s death – remembered first meeting his friend when “I was wet, draggle-tailed” and subjected to questioning about his military rather than journalistic exploit, ‘a difficult moment’”. They next met in the political context of the post-war unification of South Africa, where each had a role in abetting the fatal compromise that postponed the vital question of black rights in the Union to another day – a moment of irresolution that led to nearly a century of contest, resentment, repression, and revolt.
If neither man, as Steyn writes, was a jingoistic racialist, they shared a view of European supremacy, and British imperialism as its vehicle, as a force for good, for all people, a perspective which, for “many modern historians, with the benefit of hindsight”, rendered the two “as prime symbols of an anachronistic empire”.
It was an empire – and, coupled with the notion of imperial good, a high-minded internationalism – that they worked jointly and energetically to serve through both world warsand in the formation of the UN.
Their mutual commitment to this view of world affairs resonates in an ironic way in the post-colonial world, where, as Steyn writes “Nelson Mandela’s ‘new’ South Africa was the ultimate beneficiary of the international system that Smuts had helped create and Churchill in particular had fought so hard to preserve”.
Yet, posterity seems reluctant to acknowledge this.
Steyn examines the conundrum of history’s very different treatment of each man, noting that while the Churchillian legacy is monumental,
Churchill & Smuts, The Friendship is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.