Jan Smuts – Unafraid of Greatness by Richard Steyn

If you’ve ever done anything touristy in London you have likely walked through Parliament square. Its a park wedged between the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. Eleven statues grace this square. As you might imagine, seven of these are British, the most noteworthy (in my opinion) being Winston Churchill. The other four, however are quite interesting.

There is one American, Abraham Lincoln. The other three are Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Jan Smuts. Two South Africans and one Indian who lived in South Africa (for twenty one years). No women. (embarrassed by this, that will soon change)

Jan Smuts lived an extraordinary life. He was an exceptional statesman, commando, soldier, botanist and philosopher. Among his lengthy list of achievements is that he is the only person to sign both treaties that ended the first and second world wars. He was instrumental in creating the RAF and served as a member of the British War Cabinet. He was a founding member of the League of Nations and then later pushed for the creation of the United Nations. He wrote the Preface to the UN Charter and is also the only person to sign both the charter of the League of Nations and the United Nations.


During the Second World War, Winston Churchill (by this stage they were BFF’s) considered him so vital to the war effort and thought so highly of him that it was decided that Smuts would be appointed as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom should Winston Churchill be killed or otherwise become incapacitated, a plan that was approved of by King George VI who was also very fond of Smuts. (Not bad for a frail, sickly, Afrikaans farm-boy who herded sheep until he was twelve years old)

Interestingly Jan Smuts and Winston Churchill first met during the second Boer War, albeit on opposing sides when Churchill was captured by the Boers. After Churchill escaped (by climbing over a latrine wall), Jan Smuts wrote the warrant for his arrest, ‘Englishman, twenty five years old, about five foot, eight inches high, walks with a bend forward, pale appearance, red-brownish hair, small mustache hardly perceptible, talks through his nose and cannot pronounce the letter ‘S’ properly’.

On Jan Smuts passing, an emotional Sir Winston Churchill told the British Parliament ‘In all the numerous fields in which he shone, warrior, statesman, philosopher, philanthropist, Jan Smuts commands in his majestic career the admiration of all. There is no personal tragedy in the close of so long and complete a life as this. But his friends who are left behind to face the unending problems and perils of human existence feel an overpowering sense of impoverishment and irreparable loss. This sense is also the measure of the gratitude with which we and lovers of freedom and civilization in every land salute his memory’.


As biographies go, this one is a very easy read. I found it read more like a novel and at 250 pages you can blaze through it in a day or two.  It doesn’t leave you with the fatigue of reading something like The history of the Peloponnesean war by Thucydides which I bought together with the above and which I’m (together with Google) STILL struggling through. The book gives you a good sense of the man and his achievements without a lot of interpretation or other background noise.

I find Jan Smuts lack of worldly renown quite interesting. He reminds me a lot George Catlett Marshall Jr. Whose name almost no-one knows, but who basically won World War two. Even in his own country Smuts occupies this weird gray area of fame. He was largely disliked by Afrikaners because of his conciliatory nature with the British after the Boer war and was perceived as an anglophile for having studied in England*. He was nick-named ‘Slim-Jannie’ by the South African media. Slim can be translated as ‘clever’ but in this sense it was meant more in a derogatory sense, probably ‘sly’. He also clashed with the Calvinist churches for his education reform (he promoted secular schooling) and his views on Holism and evolution.

*Smuts studied at Cambridge. Lord Todd the master of Christ’s College was quoted that ‘… in five hundred years of the College’s history, of all its members, past and present, three had been truly outstanding, John Milton, Charles Darwin and Jan Smuts’

Being white and coming from an era of racial intolerance in South African (and in the world at large at the time) he is now even less admired. The main international airport in Johannesburg which used to bear his name has been renamed after the Apartheid Revolutionary Oliver Reginald Tambo.

I think its easy for us to try erase the past to make it seem more palatable. We forget that we will likely be judged quite harshly by future generations for our excess, greed and intolerance. Yet we feel quite comfortable judging others. We tend to foist unrealistic expectations on people, forgetting that we are all flawed in some manner or other. It is likely that Smuts did not believe in equality, still I find myself reluctant to condemn him for it. Maybe its easy for me. Still I think forgiveness is the better option.

Jan Smut and the Boers suffered immensely during the Boer war. The British, loosing the war, resorted to the infamous Scorched earth policy* and incarcerated Boer woman and children in concentration camps where thousands died from disease and malnutrition’. (at least four thousand women and twenty thousand children died in these camps)

*this was the systematic destruction by the British Army of all Boer crops, the slaughtering of all their livestock, the burning down of their homes and farms. Water sources and wells would be poisoned and the fields sown with salt. All done to prevent the Boer commando’s from resupplying. A heinous war crime by today’s standards. 

If Jan Smuts can ‘get over’ himself and can see the bigger picture, that he can work together with his former enemy for betterment of humanity,  then so can we.