Jan Smuts was a controversial figure with a complex legacy. Kobus du Pisani considers Smuts' career in light of calls to remove his name from a residence building at the University of Cape Town.
Some people regard Nelson Mandela as a criminal and a murderer. Others accuse him of being a sellout. Many more honour him as the greatest South African of all time. How one assesses the prominent men and women from the past is clearly a matter of perception.
Controversy over South Africa's contested past is surfacing again with the proposal by the Students' Representative Council (SRC) of the University of Cape Town (UCT) that as an act of transformation, the name of Jan Smuts Hall, a men's residence on the main campus, should be changed.
In the SRC proposal, Smuts is described as a colonialist, imperialist and racist. Smuts Hall is described as part of an architecture and space that negates black humanity and dignity. The proposal states that racist preservation of a racist man's legacy has no place in a transforming institution and that an ethical position should be taken to support the name changing of the building to a more appropriate and representative name that is in line with the direction the institution aspires to.
In a similar vein than the #RhodesMustFall campaign, the SRC appeal, coming in the wake of the BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement, is subjective and emotional, expressing strong anti-colonial and anti-racist sentiments. Is the SRC perception of Smuts justified when it is tested against historical facts? Should those who support the preservation of Smuts's legacy resist the proposed name change?
A multifaceted and complex figure
Jan Christian Smuts (1870-1950) has always been a controversial figure.
Smuts was a multifaceted and complex person, a man with tremendous strengths, but also debilitating weaknesses. Saul Dubow, alumnus of UCT and Smuts Professor of Commonwealth History at the University of Cambridge, referred to Smuts' as a "mix of visionary idealism, cool realpolitik and segregationist sympathies".
Smuts had a long career in politics, spanning more than half a century. His inputs at the National Convention were decisive in the design of the unified South African state. In the so-called "age of the generals", he was a dominant figure in white-controlled politics in the Union of South Africa as either a minister, leader of the opposition or Prime Minister. He worked for the reconciliation of the Afrikaans- and English-speaking sections of the white population, but failed to win the support of pro-republican Afrikaner nationalists.
The influence of Smuts was not limited to the national sphere. He entered the international stage as a respected military strategist, although he was no warmonger, but a promoter of peace. His crucial role as a military man in the world wars was acknowledged when King George VI promoted him to the rank of field-marshal, the only South African to be honoured in that way. Smuts was the driving force behind the foundation of the South African defence forces.
Smuts' international fame was not based only on his military prowess. As an international statesman he stood out in the latter part of the colonial era as a colossus among his contemporaries through his decisive contributions to the values and structuring of the League of Nations, the Commonwealth and the United Nations. For his efforts, he received acclaim in many countries.
Smuts was awarded the prestigious Order of Merit, a string of honorary doctorates and chancellorships from universities, and the freedom of numerous cities. He was admired or befriended by famous leaders such as Churchill and Roosevelt, and adored by the British royal family. Smuts' achievements on the twentieth century international stage were rivalled in South Africa only by Nelson Mandela.
A unique individual
What made Smuts unique was that he, in addition to his role as politician and statesman, was also a true intellectual and scientist in his own right. His outstanding achievements as a student of law at Christ's College in Cambridge is well-known. As a leader in South Africa, he was a zealous promoter of universities and academic disciplines.
He was recognised as a botanist of international standing and foremost expert on African grasses. His most famous contribution to science was his book Holism and Evolution, which earned him recognition as the father of holism, a scientific paradigm that remains influential in scientific circles. He served a term as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
Smuts' list of achievements is impressive. He was, however, only human and not without shortcomings. The criticism of Smuts by the SRC of UCT, accusing him of being an imperialist and a racist, is not new. He, indeed, regarded the British Empire as the most significant political entity of all time. His promotion of the imperial project provoked heated critique from Afrikaner nationalists. They could not understand how a former Boer general, who, at the time of the Second Anglo-Boer War, had targeted British imperialism as the main enemy, could switch sides and, in their opinion, betray Afrikaner interests.
Whether it is fair to regard Smuts as a racist has been a topic of discussion and controversy.
Smuts was instrumental in excluding black persons from meaningful political participation in the South African state, and that right to the end of his political career, he was not ready to accept them as political equals deserving full citizenship rights. During his lifetime, some of Smuts's critics accused him of hypocrisy, using the concept of holism to justify his biased racial views in the name of a higher human purpose.
Those defending Smuts argue that it is unfair to measure him by today's standards because he operated in a completely different world, and that he should be judged in the context of his own time. When Europe was still dominating the world order in the colonial era, the concepts of human rights, anti-colonialism and anti-racism were not yet on the agenda. Granting equal political rights to colonised or indigenous people was unthinkable, because the leaders of the colonial powers did not regard them as ready for it.
Smuts was a segregationist at a time when white decision-makers, even those regarded as being liberal, justified white trusteeship and segregation as a measure to protect the culture of the vulnerable African communities from contamination by European ideas. As far as his policies on race relations were concerned, Smuts was a moderate white leader rather than a hardliner.
Towards the end of his life, he realised that the colonial edifices were crumbling and that racial segregation had failed to provide a solution to South Africa's "native question". He often emphasised the need to improve the socio-economic position of South African blacks by attending to their basic human needs.
Smuts may have been in favour of relaxing rather than tightening segregation, as proposed by the National Party opposition, and his government did not restrict and oppress the black population to the same extent as the National Party apartheid government. However, afraid of losing white voter support, he did not do much as Prime Minister to extend meaningful political participation to Africans. He did not envisage a non-racial future. That he dragged his feet in this regard and left the issue to be resolved by future generations is the most common criticism of Smuts's political failings.
Special relationship with UCT
Jan Smuts had a special relationship with the University of Cape Town. He received an honorary doctorate from the university, was its chancellor for the last fourteen years of his life and donated his books on botany and part of his plant collection to the Bolus Herbarium. Smuts Hall, founded in 1928, was named after him in acknowledgement of this special relationship. It is thus not surprising that a sizeable section of the university's alumni, especially former residents of Smuts Hall, have a pride in the name of the residence and resist attempts to change that name. As stakeholders, they have a right to do so.
The proposed name change is a controversial matter.
Before the #RhodesMustFall campaign, in the 2013 Smuts Hall Lecture, Dr Mamphela Ramphele said: "Some black students here are uncomfortable being surrounded by symbols of our past. But you cannot choose your parents. This history belongs to all of us. It is up to us to make our own symbols so that we can provide a balance to that past."
Two years later, a spokesperson for the #RhodesMustFall campaign said that black students found it hard to breathe in a space devoted to colonial memories. Professor Njabulo Ndebele, former vice-chancellor of UCT, in his 2016 Helen Joseph Lecture, stated that in the process of the decolonisation of the university, the discomfort of black students with the colonial past was understandable, that the personal sensibilities of whites were no longer sustainable in South African society, and that it was time to recognise that the norm of human presence in post-1994 South Africa is black.
In the current situation, it is conceivable that the relevant committees at UCT who must make a recommendation about the proposed name change to the university council may be sympathetic towards the SRC point of view.
In an ideologically driven campaign, emotions and perceptions rather than historical facts will probably be decisive. It is possible that Smuts' name may be erased from a building on the campus. However, it is not possible to erase his achievements and legacy as one of the most famous South Africans.
- Professor Kobus du Pisani is the editor of 'Jan Smuts: Son of the Veld, Pilgrim of the World, a reappraisal' published by Protea Book House in 2019.
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