‘Churchill & Smuts,The Friend­ship’,re­veals the re­mark­able bond be­tween two lead­ers his­tory has treated very dif­fer­ently,writes

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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.

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