Smuts, General Jan Christiaan

The famous South African Field-Marshall, Boer War General, Prime Minister and jurist, Smuts, was born on 24 May 1870 in Riebeeck-West and died in Irene, near Pretoria on 11 September 1950. Like may Boer children he started his education late and was 12 when he was sent to school, although he had received some basic teaching from his mother.

In 1886 Smuts went to Victoria College in Stellenbosch, forerunner of the present University. He obtained his first degree at the age of 21 (after only 9 years of formal education), and at the end of 1891 he went to Christ’s College, Cambridge in the UK where he read for the Bar, and completed the course with the highest honours in 1894. At Cambridge he wrote a book, never published, on the work and poetry of Walt Whitman. During the same year he did the exam for advocates and once again succeeded with highest distinction. Back in South Africa the Jameson Raid changed his political viewpoint to that of a republican.

He practised as State Attorney from 1898, and served President Paul Kruger‘s Executive Council as legal advisor. Following the problems of the foreigners in the old Republic he advised the President on matters of political and military significance.

He served as a non-combatant general during the Second Anglo-Boer War and joined the group of generals who signed the Peace Treaty at Vereeniging. It was during the Boer War that Smuts became acquainted with Commandant-General Louis Botha, forming a close friendship that lasted until Botha’s death in 1919.

He went into politics in 1905 and in 1908 played a major role in formulating the constitution of the Union of South Africa. As cabinet minister his personality soon brought him into prominence but was regarded as being the more reserved and intellectual. As from 1910 he served as a minister and during WW 1 he became an internationally known figure. When South Africa became a Union, Smuts became Minister of Defence, Mines and the Interior, and he created the Union Defence Force. He was responsible for the strong-handed action against a civil rebellion against the decision to ally with Britain by a section of the Afrikaner population. For what was regarded as high-handed action, he incurred a lot of disapproval.

In 1917 he became a Privy Councillor of the British War Cabinet (only South African who ever served in two governments) and joined President Wilson of the USA and Prime Minister Lloyd George of the UK in the idea of creating an international forum to maintain peace. In 1917 he submitted the document The League of Nations – a practical suggestion that laid the foundation for the United Nations.

As part of the War Cabinet in 1918 he was largely responsible for the establishment of the Royal Air Force (formerly the Royal Flying Corps (now an independent section of the armed forces in its own right).

Back in South Africa Smuts succeeded General Louis Botha as Prime Minister on 27 August 1919 and, losing a later election, became leader of the opposition in 1924. In 1926 he published his well-known book Holism and Evolution. In 1930 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society and the following year Rector of St Andrew’s University. In 1934 he was back in politics as Deputy Prime Minister under Hertzog. As the latter did not wish to be involved in WW II, he stepped down and Smuts once again became Prime Minister. In May 1941 he was promoted to Field-Marshall of the British Army.

With Botha’s death in 1919, Smuts became Prime Minister of the South African Union until 1924.