Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts was a prominent South African and British Commonwealth statesman, military leader and philosopher. In addition to holding various cabinet posts, he served as prime minister of the Union of South Africa from 1919 until 1924 and from 1939 until 1948.
He was born on 24 May 1870, at the family farm, Bovenplaats, near Malmesbury, in the Cape Colony. His parents, Jacobus Smuts and his wife Catharina, were prosperous, traditional Afrikaner farmers, long established and highly respected.
Jan was quiet and delicate as a child, strongly inclined towards solitary pursuits. During his childhood, he often went out alone, exploring the surrounding countryside; this awakened a passion for nature, which he retained throughout his life. As the second son of the family, rural custom dictated that he would remain working on the farm; a full formal education was typically the preserve of the first son. However, in 1882, when Jan was twelve, his elder brother died, and Jan was sent to school in his brother's place.
Jan attended the school in nearby Riebeek West. He made excellent progress here, despite his late start, and caught up with his contemporaries within four years. He moved on to Victoria College, Stellenbosch, in 1886, at the age of sixteen.
At Stellenbosch, he learned High Dutch, German, and Ancient Greek, and immersed himself further in literature, the classics, and Bible studies. His deeply traditional upbringing and serious outlook led to social isolation from his peers. However, he made outstanding academic progress, graduating in 1891 with double first-class honours in Literature and Science. During his last years at Stellenbosch, Smuts began to cast off some of his shyness and reserve, and it was at this time that he met Isie Krige, whom he was later to marry.
In 1894, Smuts passed the examinations for the Inns of Court, entering the Middle Temple. His old Cambridge college, Christ's College, offered him a fellowship in Law. However, Smuts turned his back on a potentially distinguished legal future. By June 1895, he had returned to the Cape Colony, determined that he should make his future there
Thereafter, he served Prime Minister Louis Botha as colonial secretary and minister of education; in 1910 he accepted the Ministry of Mines, Defense, and Interior in the new Union of South Africa. Early in 1914 he used his Defense Force to suppress a miners' strike, thereby earning the indemnification of Parliament.
The outbreak of the war in Europe put an end to Smuts' labor troubles as well as to the thorny issue of settlement and registration of Indians in South Africa; the second, or military, phase of his career began. On September 15,1914, at the request of London, a contingent of South African troops was sent into German South-West Africa. It was nothing less than an imperial disaster. The troops under Colonel S. G. Marwitz rebelled and joined the Germans, and only by using force were Botha and Smuts able to restore order. Early in 1915 Botha advanced inland from Swakopmund and Smuts from Liideritzbucht; and in July the German garrison of 3,370 soldiers surrendered to 43,000 South African troops. Early in 1916 the British bestowed upon Smuts command of all imperialist forces in East Africa and promoted their erstwhile opponent lieutenant general in the British army. To Smuts fell the task of bringing the German forces in East Africa under General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck to bay. Although once again greatly outnumbering the enemy, Smuts this time was not able to defeat, much less capture, Lettow-Vorbeck. In March 1916, he managed to outflank the Germans at Salaita Hill on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, and in January 1917, he pursued them down the Rufiji River, but the climate, exhaustion, and disease exacted a heavy toll on his troops. Smuts was recalled to the Cape in January 1917, and ordered to London as representative on the Imperial War Cabinet; later on, Prime Minister David Lloyd George grew to respect Smuts' counsel and invited the Afrikaner to join the British War Cabinet.
General Smuts toured the western front and concurred with Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander in chief in France, that a major effort at Ypres in the direction of Passchendaele was required. Later that year Smuts declined an offer from Lloyd George to command British forces in Egypt, rightly fearing that he might be "stranded" in Palestine. In October 1917, Smuts was asked by the prime minister to employ his great tact and previous experience to quell strikes in the Welsh coal fields. In January 1918, the Afrikaner was sent out to Egypt in order to report on the situation there. He at once recommended that Sir Edmund Allenby "press on to Aleppo at the expense of France." This Allenby did with alacrity: Jericho was captured at the end of February and the road cleared for a push upon Amman and Syria beyond.
The irrepressible Smuts on June 8,1918, offered his services as commander in chief of the U.S. army in France, believing that the Americans did not possess a sufficiently experienced officer for this post; Lloyd George very prudently declined to pass this offer on to President Woodrow Wilson. By October Smuts had grown apprehensive about the American presence in the world: "As Europe went down, so America would rise. In time the United States of America would dictate to the world in naval, military, diplomatic, and financial matters." He urged the prime minister to prevent such developments.
At the Paris Peace Conference Smuts joined Wilson as the leading proponent of the League of Nations. He also came out in favor of German war reparations and invented the mandate system under which the victors would hold the former German colonies. Yet at the last moment he almost refused to sign the Versailles Treaty, believing this "Carthaginian peace" to be too severe; perhaps he remembered the peace imposed upon the Boers by the victorious Britons at Vereeniging in 1902.
Upon the death of Botha in August 1919, Smuts became prime minister and began yet another phase of his career. Five years later he was defeated in the elections as a result of his bloody suppression of another miners' strike in the Rand. For much of the next two decades he feuded with J.B.M. Hertzog over Cape politics, perhaps most bitterly in 1939 when Hertzog demanded that South Africa remain neutral in the European war. South African troops eventually saw action in Abyssinia, North Africa, and Italy, and in 1941 Smuts, at age seventy-one, was promoted British field marshal in yet a further turn in his incredible career. At San Francisco in 1945 he helped to create the United Nations. His tempestuous career closed at Irene, near Pretoria, on September 11, 1950.
Smuts was for most of his political life a vocal supporter of segregation of the races, and in 1929 he justified the erection of separate institutions for blacks and whites in tones prescient of the later practice of apartheid:
The old practice mixed up black with white in the same institutions, and nothing else was possible after the native institutions and traditions had been carelessly or deliberately destroyed. But in the new plan there will be what is called in South Africa "segregation"; two separate institutions for the two elements of the population living in their own separate areas. Separate institutions involve territorial segregation of the white and black. If they live mixed together it is not practicable to sort them out under separate institutions of their own. Institutional segregation carries with it territorial segregation.
In general, Smuts' view of Africans was patronising, he saw them as immature human beings that needed the guidance of whites, an attitude that reflected the common perceptions of most non-Africans in his lifetime. Of Africans he stated that:
These children of nature have not the inner toughness and persistence of the European, not those social and moral incentives to progress which have built up European civilization in a comparatively short period.
Smuts married Isabella (Isie) Margaretha Krige (in later life known as "Ouma") in 1897. Isie was from Stellenbosch, and lived near Smuts. They had six children.