When, on September 4, 1939, Jan Smuts exulted in – only narrowly – winning the parliamentary vote to reject prime minister JBM Hertzog’s neutrality motion and take South Africa into World War II on Britain’s side, he sealed his place in world affairs and his affection in the heart of a man who was once his enemy on the Boer War battlefield.
General Smuts’s motion that the Union refuse to adopt a policy of neutrality in the war was carried by 13 votes – 80 to 67. But, if the grounds for an election were overwhelming, that’s not how it worked out and Churchill was grateful.
He had got to know Smuts well and liked him. The feeling was mutual, and Smuts revelled in the scope his friendship provided for playing a role in the international scene, where he was widely admired for his talents and energy.
But if dark clouds hovered over Europe – and even the world – in 1939, calling for the resolve that Smuts and Churchill shared, the former Boer War commando was weaker at home than he realised.
And he could be said to have been weaker on two fronts: an insufficiency of political imagination that prevented him from seeing that a post-white man’s world was not inimical to the principles he professed, and an insufficiency of political foresight, which led to his defeat by his own people in less than a decade.
A day after Smuts’s victory, the prime minister resigned, the contents of his statement, reported on September 6, 1939, containing an ominously accurate prediction.
While Hertzog was wrong in his 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’s 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”.
What started out as an unlikely friendship grew to become one of the closest and most enduring either man had.
Steyn shares the amusing insight of Churchill’s long-time physician, Lord Moran, who “thought his patient’s inability to pick the right people (as firm friends) was because he wasn’t sufficiently interested in anyone but himself”.
Churchill, 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 photographs, of himself and his family, along with a miniature bust or two. 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, outside Ladysmith in Natal, in the opening phase of the Boer War.
Smuts, not yet a commando leader, but a government lawyer in the Transvaal republic, was paying a visit to the war zone when Churchill, officially a war correspondent for a London newspaper, but as willing to muck in with warring, had been captured by the Boers.
Though neither wrote about the encounter in his Boer War memoirs, the memory lingered for both, Smuts recalling 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 – remembering first meeting his friend when “I was wet, draggle-tailed” and subjected to questioning about his military rather than journalistic exploits “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.
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 wars, and 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 – if that’s what it is – of history’s very different treatment of each man, noting that while the Churchillian legacy is monumental, “Jan Smuts’s reputation has not been as enduring”.
If his impact on history could not be compared with Churchill’s, he was “also among the most remarkable men of the 20th century”.
“For those who don’t know him,” Steyn goes on, “Smuts was a man of exceptional talents and achievements – a Cambridge-educated lawyer, guerrilla fighter, soldier, philosopher, scientist and political leader, a member of Britain’s War Cabinet in two world wars and the only person to be present at the ceremonies at the end of both those wars. He played a leading role in the founding of the League of Nations in the aftermath of World War I, and helped draft the cCharter of the UN Organisation after World War II.”
But as South Africa drifted into global ignominy as a result of apartheid, Smuts’s achievements were overshadowed, and his political pragmatism painted as failure.
Steyn’s book closes with the poignant coda which seems at once to set the two men apart, yet welds them too: “Winston Churchill will always be celebrated as one of history’s towering figures, the saviour of his nation and upholder of Western democratic values. And Jan Smuts – as the photograph on the desk at Chartwell reminds us – was his most enduring, trusted friend.”
Churchill & Smuts, The Friendship is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.