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The many dualities of Jan Smuts

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  • The many dualities of Jan Smuts

    While doing background study on Africa the person of Jan Smuts started to intrigue me.
    It occurred that the man was so multi-faceted that he become a study in contrasts, a mystery of dualities.


    Consider if you will these contrasts with me:
    • Smuts was an amateur general (he had trained as a lawyer in Cambridge) in the Boer army, but held out successfully against the best professionals his opponents were able to field, till the Treaty of Vereeniging which ended the Boer War in 1902.
    • As a flag officer Smuts worked loyally for both sides: Boer and British; in different wars admittedly but still. As long as he was committed to the Boer side he kept on fighting even through the most adverse circumstances. After he had decided to cooperate with the British Empire he remained loyal to it in spite of very tempting circumstances to take advantage of its dire straits and go back to the side to which he originally belonged. He was the one in favour of letting South Africa join the fight with the Allies against Germany both in 1914 and in 1939.
    • In 1910 Smuts cemented the South African Union between Afrikaners and the British after the bitter Boer War. He reached a workable compromise between these two groups but this took place at the expense of the black population for whom he didn't seem to care.
    • In spite of the fact that he Smuts had been a highly succesful guerrilla commander during the Boer War he did not make an impression in the field as a counter guerrilla commander against Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck in German East Africa during WW1.
    • Internationally, Smuts was propagator of both the League of Nations after WW1 and the United Nations after WW2. He coined what are now buzzwords like 'freedom and democracy' in their charters. At the same time he seemed unable to care for those ideals back home. To say the least, he did very little against racial segregation and Apartheid in South Africa.
    The trend I think I'm picking up is that there is a certain reappraisal of Smuts, e.g. for his role in establishing the Union in 1910 perhaps prevented a civil war in South Africa, but IMO he will certainly not be remembered as Nelson Mandela is who kept the country together in the nineties.
    Any light on the above or do I miss aspects?
    BoRG

    You may not be interested in War, but War is interested in You - Leon Trotski, June 1919.

  • #2
    Smuts was great man in many respects and admired as such in many quarters. He served as a member of Churchills war cabinet and as you pointed out was a firm espouser of the league and the UN. It was this fascination with all things international that eventually allowed the National Party, led by the now (in)famous DF Malan, into power and they ruled until 1994. Had he paid more attention to the local situation, then maybe he could have staved off the inevitable for a while - who knows.

    But he did not have much time for the Black man, as was relatively common at that time, around the world by all accounts, and was pretty much a white supremacist. I say that because he had an attitude that non whites did not have the capability to become anything as developed and powerful as Europeans.

    He also supported Israel and granted recognition to the new state in '48, but in '37, when the Hertzog government brought in anti immigration laws against predominantly Jewish peoples, he was deputy PM and allowed this law to pass under his watch. I am not too sure how much power his position gave him to influence the passing of this legislation though.

    He is similar to many statesmen of that era when human rights were not anything to be concerned about and prejudice was a fact of life, I believe, but he ranks as one of my greatest SAFANs of all time, and in fact, in 200(?) he ranked fifth, IIRC, in some contest of the same name.

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    • #3
      In spite of the fact that he Smuts had been a highly succesful guerrilla commander during the Boer War he did not make an impression in the field as a counter guerrilla commander against Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck in German East Africa during WW1.
      The Boer War is all but a black hole for me. I no very little about it. Perhaps the differences was who he was fighting against? Were the British commanders inept? PvL was any thing but inept.
      "Ask not what your country can do for you"

      Left wing, Right Wing same bird that they are killing.

      you’re entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts.

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      • #4
        Originally posted by Half Pint John View Post
        The Boer War is all but a black hole for me. I no very little about it. Perhaps the differences was who he was fighting against? Were the British commanders inept? PvL was any thing but inept.
        John, with MM I agree that 'slimme Jannie Smuts' was a man of many talents, civil as well as military.
        As for the differences in performance against the British during the Boer War and against Paul von Lettow Vorbeck in WW1, the following reflections come to mind.

        British performance during the Boer War IMO was a mixed bag, (perhaps one of these days we should open a 'Boer War thread' here in order to discuss it in depth). However against whomever Smuts came up, he always performed well. If on nothing else, Boer leaders kept their minds open on military matters. Among Boer officers were men of the most striking intellect in Afrikaner society, quicker by far than their professional British opponents.

        Re his performance against PLV, IIRC he was only in theater less than a year and however brilliant and experienced as a former guerrilla leader he may have been, you cannot expect to win a counter guerrilla war in such a vast territory against such a well lead opponent in such short time. See for further details on this campaign the two threads on the African front in the WW1 forum
        BoRG

        You may not be interested in War, but War is interested in You - Leon Trotski, June 1919.

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