South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

Jan Christiaan Smuts

(May 24, 1870 - September 11, 1950)

Jan Smuts was not only a statesman and a soldier, but also a naturalist and philosopher. He was born near Riebeeck West in the Cape in 1870 and left South Africa to read law at Cambridge University. He returned in 1895 and became a supporter of the Rhodes-Hofmeyr partnership. He was very disappointed with the Jameson Raid and became a republican and an Afrikaner nationalist. He also gave up his private law practice and became State Attorney and advisor to the Executive Council in Paul Kruger's government at the age of 28.

Smuts was a man of daunting intellect and among his friends were Winston Churchill and Mohandas Gandhi. During the Second Anglo Boer War he was deeply involved in the planning and execution of the extended guerilla phase of the conflict. He was also a delegate at the Vereeniging Peace Conference, after which he returned to Pretoria and legal practice. Here he and Louis Botha formed the Het Volk Party. By 1907 he was appointed Minister of Education and colonial secretary in the Botha government in the Transvaal Colony.

Jan Smuts was largely responsible for the drafting of the Union of South Africa's constitution as a delegate to the National Convention. He was also Minister of Interior, Defence and Mines in the first Union Cabinet. Due to his reconcilliatory attitude towards the English he was unpopular with his kinsmen. He also antagonized Afrikaner Nationalists by not reprieving Jopie Fourie, the only rebel executed after the failed Boer rebellion of 1914-1915.

During the First World War he excelled as field general in the German South-West African and East African campaigns and also served on the Imperial War Cabinet. He was instrumental in the creation of the Royal Air Force and ensured the independence of the British dominions. He also assisted in the development of the League of Nations, which later became the United Nations.

In 1919 he attended the Paris Peace Conference with Botha and, following Botha's death, became Prime Minister of the Union. In 1921 he merged the Union Party and the South African Party and strengthened his power base. Due to his severe handling of the Rand Rebellion in 1922 he lost the next election, in 1924, to J B M Vorster and his National Party (NP). In 1933 Smuts became Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice under Hertzog. Their coalition led to the formation of the United Party in 1934.

In 1939 the two leaders differed over the war issue and Smuts took over as Premier. Following this he contributed to the policy-making decisions of the Allied forces and was promoted to field marshal of the British Army in 1941. During the post-war years he was involved in the formation of the United Nations. In South Africa support for the NP under D F Malan gained support and in 1948 the United Party was defeated. Jan Smuts died in Irene, near Pretoria, in 1950


This biography is from South African History Online. Used by permission. 
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