Monday, July 11, 2016

Jan Smuts (1870-1950): The Great, Forgotten Statesman of the 20th century

We were in Cape Town, South Africa a few weeks ago and saw a large statute of Jan Smuts in downtown near the Parliament. It triggered my memory from decades ago. I vaguely remembered that Jan Smuts led a contingent of the Boers in the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and then ended up a Field Marshall in the British Army during World War II. That’s quite a transformation! Forget Wikipedia, I found a 2015 biography of General Smuts, Richard Steyn, “Jan Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness” in a Cape Town bookstore. He truly was amazing! A trivia question would be: Who is the only signatory of both the League of Nations and the United Nations? The answer is Jan Smuts. That’s amazing! Another trivia question would be: Who was the President of the United Nations General Assembly in San Francisco? The answer is again Jan Smuts. Such was his international renown. He also signed both the World War I and World War II peace treaties. He was the son of Afrikaner farmers in the Cape Colony and attended Cambridge. He returned to South Africa to practice law, but was not suited by dint of personality to the private practice. He rose quickly in government circles. He led a contingent of Boer commandos during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The British forces never defeated him, but the British relentlessly wore down the Boer forces through superior resources and a scorched earth policy. The British placed Boer women and children in concentration camps, in which over 20,000 perished. The British also destroyed the Boer farms and facilities. Smuts led the peace negotiations, in which the British were surprisingly magnanimous. They basically treated the defeated Boers with the same respect General Grant extended to the defeated General Lee and the confederate forces at Appomattox Court House. Indeed, one of the British officials, not Lord Milner, told the Boers it wouldn’t be long before the Boers could practice self-independence. The two British (Cape Town and Natal) and Boer provinces (Republic of South Africa and the Orange Free State) were merged together as the Union of South Africa in 1910. They received nominal self-governance in 1909 and complete independence in 1931 under the Statute of Westminster. Jan Smuts decided South Africa needed to remain in the British Empire as a unified country. He became an Anglophile. He and Louis Botha led the South African forces against the Germans in German Southwest Africa (now Namibia) in World War I. He was then dispatched to fight the Germans in German East Africa (now Ruanda, Zambia and Tanzania). He was less successful. The South African forces could never corner the wily German General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck and his 15,000 soldiers, but the Germans never posed a risk to the British African colonies. General Smuts was called to England in 1917 to serve in the Imperial War Council. He created the framework for the Royal Air Force. He served as Prime Minister of South Africa from 1919-1924 and 1939-1948. He again served in the British Imperial War cabinet in World War II and was named a Field Marshall in the British Army in 1 941. General Smuts had witnessed the carnage of war first hand. He hoped to avoid more war by adopting the League of Nations and then a stronger United Nations after the Second World War. The League of Nations reflected his vision. He also unsuccessfully opposed the draconian reparations placed on Germany after World War I. He feared for the future if Germany was treated harshly. It was his idea to transform the British Empire into the British Commonwealth of Nations. His legacy to the world was not just the United Nations in general, but the preamble, which he mostly wrote. He provided the phrase which has become a critical foundation of modern international law: “We declare our belief in basic human rights.” On a different note, he wrote a treatise on “Holism” and gave us the word “holistic.” He was though, as befits a man of his time and his background, a segregationist. He did not believe in equal rights for the blacks and his administrations did not advance their rights. He was not though as racist as Cecil Rhodes or the Afrikaners who imposed Apartheid in 1948. His many honors included being named Rector of St. Andrews University in 1931 and the first non-British Chancellor of Cambridge, serving from 1948 to his death in 1950. Jan Smuts by all measure was brilliant in almost everything except politics. He called for elections in South Africa at a bad time. Just as the British threw out Winston Churchill in 1945, the South Africans Afrikaners’ National Party won the 1948 election. His party actually won a majority of the votes, but apportionment favored the opposition’s districts. The National Party ran on a platform of Apartheid. They enacted a series of Apartheid statutes three months after being elected. The National Party remained in power until 1994. His international fame has been replaced by that of Nelson Mandela.

No comments: