Smuts, Jan

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Jan Smuts

BORN: May 24, 1870 • Riebeek West, Cape Colony, South Africa

DIED: September 11, 1950 • Pretoria, South Africa

South African political leader, humanitarian

Jan Christian Smuts was one of the most influential statesmen of the twentieth century in addition to an innovative and successful military leader for Britain. While serving as prime minister of South Africa from 1919 to 1924 and from 1939 to 1948, Smuts sought to maintain South Africa's membership in the British Commonwealth (association made up of the United Kingdom, its dependencies, and many former British colonies) while maintaining as much political independence as possible. He was the only person to be part of the development of both the League of Nations in 1919 and the United Nations in 1946. Both were international organizations established to resolve conflicts between nations driven by such factors as ethnic and religious prejudice (a negative attitude towards others based on a prejudgment about those individuals with no prior knowledge or experience) and nationalism (the belief that a particular nation and its culture, people, and values are superior to those

"We forget that the human spirit, the spirit of goodness and truth in the world, is still only an infant crying in the night, and that the struggle with darkness is as yet mostly an unequal struggle."

of other nations). Smuts also led the way to lessening colonial rule in the world that was largely based on racial prejudice. He opposed apartheid (governmental policy of racial separation and discrimination) that nonetheless became a cornerstone of South African society through most of the second half of the twentieth century. Apartheid was the hallmark of racism in the world during that time.

An Afrikaner and Boer

Smuts was born in May 1870 on a family farm near Malmesbury in British-controlled Cape Colony in South Africa. He was one of six children. His father, Jacobus Abraham Smuts, was involved in politics and served as a representative for Malmesbury in the Cape House of Assembly. Though British citizens, his family was of Dutch descent and worshipped the strict teachings of the Dutch Reform Church. His Dutch ancestors arrived in South Africa in 1692. Therefore, Smuts was born an Afrikaner and a Boer. Afrikaners are a distinct ethnic group in South Africa composed primarily of descendents of Dutch colonists who began arriving in southern Africa in 1652 as part of the Dutch East Indian Company. Afrikaners also included French Huguenots escaping religious persecution in France in the 1680s and other peoples from around Europe. Forming a common society, they began calling themselves Afrikaners in 1707 and spoke the Afrikaans language.

By the 1830s, Britain had gained control of the South African Dutch colonies. Many Afrikaners moved further into remote areas to establish new settlements outside the existing reach of British authority. They began calling themselves Boers to distinguish themselves from Afrikaners, who moved elsewhere or stayed put under British rule. The Boers were pastoralists (people who raise and herd livestock) and maintained racial prejudice against the black Africans they came in contact with. They created the independent states of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. In the meantime, British rule spread, ultimately reaching the Boer states and leading to a series of Boer Wars (1880–81; 1899–1902).

A gifted student

In 1876, when Smuts was six years old, his father moved the family to a large farm called Bovenplaats near Riebeek West. Growing up on the farm, Smuts acquired a strong appreciation for nature and excelled at horseback riding and hunting. He did not begin a formal education until he was twelve years of age, in 1882. Smuts's mother, in the meantime, taught him English. His family sent Smuts to a local boarding school in Riebeek West. His intellectual abilities quickly became evident as he caught up with kids of his own age—even after his late start—and graduated with them.

Smuts entered Victoria College in Stellenbosch in 1886 at the age of sixteen. As a young man, Smuts always had a studious and serious outlook. He socialized very little, and many considered him to be shy. At Victoria College, he received a well-rounded education in the sciences and arts, including the classics of literature. In 1891, he graduated with honors, earning degrees in both literature and science.

Upon graduation, Smuts received a scholarship to study at Christ's College at Cambridge in Britain. He studied a diverse range of subjects including science, philosophy, and poetry, but with a focus primarily on law. Smuts graduated in 1894, again with high marks. Though offered a fellowship to further study law, Smuts decided it was time to return home to South Africa.

A break with the British

Smuts opened a law practice in Cape Town, but his serious, aloof manner did not help attract clients. Seeing little financial success in law, Smuts became increasingly interested in politics and journalism. He wrote articles for the Cape Times newspaper and promoted a more united South Africa while maintaining a strong cooperative relationship between Britain and the Boers. He joined the Afrikaner Bond, a political party that promoted the interests of Afrikaners. Through his growing connections, Smuts was appointed legal advisor for Cape Colony's colonial prime minister, Cecil John Rhodes (1853–1902).

However, Smuts became very upset with British rule after Rhodes unexpectedly directed a raid, known as the Jamison Raid, against Afrikaners in the Transvaal with the intent of sparking a war between Afrikaners and British forces. Disenchanted, Smuts resigned and moved to Johannesburg in August 1896 to start a new life practicing law again. In late 1897, he married Isie Krige, whom he had met years earlier at Victoria College. They eventually had four daughters and two sons. In 1898, they moved to Pretoria, the capital of the South Africa, after not finding Johannesburg to their liking.

The second Boer War

In Pretoria, Smuts renewed his involvement in politics. Smuts was now a strong opponent to the British rule of South Africa and supported Afrikaner nationalism. Smuts threw his support behind Transvaal president Paul Kruger (1825–1904). Quickly impressed with the twenty-eight-year-old Smuts, Kruger appointed him state attorney for Transvaal in 1898. During this time, the Afrikaners became increasingly hostile to growing British influence, and the second Boer War finally broke out.

In October 1899, the two largely independent Boer republics declared war against Great Britain. During the early period of the war, Smuts was assistant to Kruger in communications with various diplomats and generals, including General Louis Botha (1862–1919). However, as Britain began to gain the upper hand militarily, Smuts took an active military command. He reorganized the Afrikaner army into guerrilla units. Smuts then pioneered the strategies of guerilla warfare, such as hit-and-run attacks and harassing the vastly larger British army. As a commando leader, Smuts fought many successful battles, but was unable to win the war. Through a negotiated ceasefire with Britain, the Boers lost their independence in May 1903. Around 27,000 Boer civilians, including children, were killed. The Boers had lost about 15 percent of their population.

Seeking independence from British rule

Following the war, Smuts returned to his Pretoria law practice. Returning also to politics, Smuts helped organize a new political party called Het Volk, meaning People's Party, in 1905. The party's goal was to promote Afrikaner causes while accepting British rule. Botha was elected the party leader and Smuts was Botha's deputy. For fifteen years—from 1904 to 1919—Botha and Smuts were a dominant presence in South African life. Renewed movement toward independence from British rule led Botha and Smuts to travel to London to negotiate for increased independence for the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony. Smuts and Botha were able to gain British acceptance for the South African territories to regain greater independence and become self-governing dominions (self-governing nations that are members of a trade alliance or commonwealth).

Through 1906, Smuts worked on a new constitution for the Transvaal. By December, public elections were held to establish the new Transvaal parliament. Smuts was among those elected, representing a region near Pretoria. His People's Party won most of the seats in a landslide victory. With Botha leading the new government, Smuts was appointed to two cabinet posts—Colonial Secretary and Education Secretary. During this period, Smuts implemented policies restricting the rights of the many Asian workers in the region. Young lawyer Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948; see entry) fought against the South African prejudice. The Transvaal economy boomed under the People's Party leadership and Smuts's popularity increased.

With the success of Transvaal under independence, the movement to unify South Africa grew again. Smuts was a leading proponent for unification. He proposed a plan with English as the official language, the capital in Pretoria, and actual voting rights for all adults, including women and black Africans. In October 1908, Smuts called a constitutional convention to begin constructing yet another new government. However, opposition to many of Smuts's proposals by others also favoring unification forced him to compromise on voting rights and other parts of his plan. Finally, a delegate convention agreed on a constitution. It was ratified (formally approved) by the four South African colonies. Botha and Smuts took the new constitution to London for the British government's acceptance. It was accepted by Parliament and signed into law by the king of England in December 1909. In 1910, the Union of South Africa officially came into existence. Afrikaners of the various provinces united to form the South African Party.

Botha, who now became prime minister, appointed Smuts to three important cabinet positions—interior, mines, and defense. Soon, political discontent surfaced as many protested the power of Smuts. This led him to resign from his positions with defense and mines, but he added the treasury cabinet position to his remaining interior position. Labor unrest also rose in South Africa, first with striking miners and then a railway strike that turned into a general labor strike. Many protested Smuts's successful but forceful reaction to both. A split in the party followed the events.

Promoting a League of Nations

World War I (1914–18) broke out in October 1914. Though the South African parliament voted to ally (side) with Britain, many Boers opposed joining Britain and rebelled. Smuts had to put down the internal rebellion before engaging German forces in southern Africa. Smuts formed the South African Defense Force and defeated German forces in German South West Africa. Following success there, Smuts was promoted to British lieutenant general in 1916 and sent with his forces to German East Africa. There he enjoyed further success. Given his growing reputation, Smuts was invited to join the British war cabinet in early 1917 in London. For the remainder of the war, he took part in developing all war strategies, including creation of the Royal Air Force.

Both Smuts and Botha participated in the Paris Peace Conference that lasted from January 1919 to January 1920. The purpose of the conference was to negotiate terms of surrender for the defeated German forces from WWI. Smuts favored lenient treatment of Germany. He also proposed creation of a strong international organization to maintain peace in the world, a group that would be called the League of Nations. While in London during the war, Smuts had written a pamphlet, published in December 1918 and introducing the name and concept he believed was needed to combat prejudices related to rising nationalism and ethnic conflicts in the world. Despite his efforts, the resulting Treaty of Versailles dictated harsh terms for Germany (Germany had to accept full responsibility for causing the war and make reparations to certain Allied countries) and a much weaker League of Nations than he proposed. Smuts guided the implementation of the resulting weaker League nonetheless.

Prime minister

Soon after returning to South Africa, Botha died in August 1919. Smuts replaced Botha as South Africa's prime minister. He served for five years. Smuts emphasized both cooperation with the British and exercising as much independence as possible for South Africa as a dominion. During this time, he influenced the British government to grant dominion status to its colonies around the world and change the name from British Empire to British Commonwealth. Redefining the relationship between Britain and its colonies actually preserved the British rule that brought much criticism from Afrikaner nationalists who wanted total independence. Smuts, unlike many Afrikaners, wanted South Africa to remain a member of the Commonwealth. Smuts also opposed strict racial segregation promoted by the majority of Afrikaners. In 1924, he suffered a defeat to a coalition (an alliance) of the National Party and labor.

Smuts was somewhat cold in public, but warm and personal in private. He had a very sophisticated mind and could not tolerate mediocrity, or weakness. Therefore, his popularity was always limited and he was often mistrusted by his supporters due to his impatience with people.

While out of political office, Smuts remained leader of the South African Party. He also returned to his academic interests. In 1926, he published the book Holism and Evolution, considered a major science breakthrough. In the book, Smuts developed the concept that all things in nature are interconnected; this is called a holistic theory. This same idea he had applied to politics in seeking the creation of the Union of South Africa, the League of Nations, and the British Commonwealth of Nations. Smuts also collected plants on botanical expeditions throughout southern Africa in the 1920s and 1930s. As leader of the opposition party, Smuts helped block efforts of the National Party leaders in power to take rights away from black Africans, including the right to vote. He wrote and proposed laws to protect the civil rights of all South Africans including blacks. He also campaigned to strengthen the League of Nations.

Creating the United Nations

Smuts reentered public office in 1933 when prime minister Barry Hertzog (1866–1942) appointed him as deputy prime minister to form a coalition against more extreme South African nationalists. They formed a new party called the United Party. World War II started in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. Hertzog sought neutrality (not favoring either side in a war) toward Germany, and Smuts proposed an alliance with Britain as in World War I. Hertzog's position proved highly unpopular and he resigned from office, a move which made Smuts prime minister of South Africa once again. Smuts then declared war on Germany. Having formed close relations with British prime minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) during World War I, Smuts—now in his seventies—was once again invited to be a member of the British war cabinet in London. In May 1941, Smuts was named Field Marshal of the British Army and was responsible to prevent Germany and its ally Italy from conquering North Africa. Plans were even made that in the event Churchill should die during the war, Smuts would become prime minister of Britain.

Upon the defeat of Germany in May 1945, Smuts traveled to San Francisco in the United States to help draft the charter of the United Nations. Again, Smuts promoted a strong international body to preserve peace and this time the idea was adopted. Smuts signed the Paris Peace Treaty, becoming the only statesman signing the treaties ending both World War I and World War II.

Popularity falls

Following the war, Smuts returned to South Africa as prime minister. However, his close relationship to Churchill and the British government decreased his popularity among the growing number of South African nationalists who wished to keep their distance from the British government. In addition, his support of the Fagan Commission (see box) that advocated an end to all racial segregation in South Africa also decreased his popularity. Smuts is thought to be the first person to use the term apartheid when he delivered a speech much earlier in 1917. He wanted a nation free of racial prejudice and discrimination. Smuts opposed the segregationist policies promoted by the National Party led by Daniel Malan (1874–1959). In the May 1948 national elections, Malan narrowly defeated Smuts, ending Smuts's public career. This election led to forty years of severe racial segregation, known throughout the world as simply apartheid.

Smuts retired to his farm near Pretoria. In 1948, he was elected chancellor of Cambridge University. He was the first person living outside Britain to be elected to that position. Smuts suffered a heart attack in May 1950 and died several months later in September at the age of eighty. In 1960, South Africa achieved complete independence from Britain. In 2004, Smuts was named one of the top ten South Africans by voters in the country.

Fagan Commission

South African prime minister Jan Smuts was opposed to policies proposed by the rival National Party calling for strict racial segregation in the nation. The issue of race relations was becoming more of a divisive issue following the end of World War II in 1945. Black Africans were moving to the cities in large numbers in search of jobs in newly developing industries. In an effort to resolve the issue, the South African government established the Fagan Commission in 1946 to recommend what should be done about race relations. Many segregationists supported rules that restricted entry of blacks into cities and forced them to live in distant rural areas. The Fagan Commission recommended loosening the restrictions on black movement into urban areas. This would help establish a reliable workforce of laborers for the growing businesses. Smuts, whose popularity was at a low at the time, fully endorsed the commission's findings.

In reaction, the National Party established its own commission, known as the Sauer Commission. This second commission came to an opposite conclusion. It reported that white workers and businessmen feared that black Africans would take away job opportunities by working for lower wages. The commission recommended stricter segregation policies that would reach all aspects of South African society. Blacks would be allowed to enter a whites-only area to work only when issued a permit. The Sauer Commission report set the direction for apartheid that the National Party installed when it defeated Smuts in the 1948 national elections. Apartheid would dominate race relations in South Africa for the next forty years.

For More Information


Crafford, F.S. Jan Smuts: A Biography. New York, Greenwood Press, 1968.

Hancock, William K. Smuts: The Fields of Force, 1919–1950. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

Ingham, Kenneth. Jan Christian Smuts: The Conscience of a South African. New York: St. Martins, 1986.

Louw, P. Eric. The Rise, Fall, and Legacy of Apartheid. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2004.


Apartheid Museum. (accessed on December 11, 2006).