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Sunday, December 13, 2015


Richard Steyn’s splendid new biography tells the story of Smuts’s life with a journalist’s eye for interesting and amusing detail. (Review by Michael Green)

Jan Smuts is almost a forgotten man in modern South Africa, but he is one of only two South Africans who can legitimately be described as world-renowned figures, the other being, of course, Nelson Mandela.

A great deal was written about Smuts during and soon after his lifetime (1870-1950), but he has been rather neglected in recent decades. Richard Steyn has now remedied this situation with a splendid new biography entitled Jan Smuts – Unafraid of Greatness, a quotation from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Smuts, the son of a farmer at Riebeek West in the Western Cape, was a supreme intellectual. He was a brilliant student at Cambridge University, he held high office in the Transvaal republic before he was 30, he formulated the philosophy of holism (the whole is greater than the sum of the parts), and he was, in Richard Steyn’s words, the most cerebral of South Africans.

But he was a man of action too, a bold and successful general in the Anglo-Boer War and later a significant leader of the British cause in two world wars. He was prime minister of South Africa from 1919 to 1924 and from 1939 to 1948. He was a founder of the United Nations and its predecessor, the League of Nations, and he was a founder of the Royal Air Force.

Richard Steyn, a former editor of the Witness newspaper in Pietermaritzburg and of the Johannesburg Star, tells the story of Smuts’s life with a journalist’s eye for interesting and amusing detail, and he provides an analysis of Smut’s achievement and failures, in particular his failure to meet the aspirations of black people in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela himself recalled hearing Smuts speak in 1939: “I heartily applauded him, cheering Smuts’s call to do battle for the freedom of Europe, forgetting that we did not have that freedom here in our own land”.

Yes, Smuts had a paternalistic attitude but, as Richard Steyn points out, many members of his own political party showed far less sympathy for other races than he did. One should see people in the context of their times, and Smuts died 65 years ago. And many of his admirers had impeccable records by the standards of today. Alan Paton, for example, said of Smuts: “Even the great thought that he was great”.

His hobbies were climbing mountains and studying plants. And his simple and unpretentious lifestyle should be a lesson to those in power today. Anyone who visits Smuts’s wood and iron farmhouse at Irene, near Pretoria, will surely note the contrast with the Nkandla residence of our present leader.

Footnote: The writer of this review must be one of the very few surviving journalists to have met Smuts and heard him speaking in public. In 1947, as a very junior reporter on the Cape Argus, I accompanied a photographer on a visit to Groote Schuur, the prime minister’s residence, to take pictures of the great man with a grandchild among the hydrangeas in the garden. And in 1949 I was in a reporting team covering parliamentary debate when Smuts was the leader of the Opposition. All very long ago. - Michael Green

Jan Smuts – Unafraid of Greatness by Richard Steyn is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers. Retail price R250. ISBN 9781868426942