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Jan Smuts

Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870 - 1950) is one of the most prominent figures in South African history. In addition to serving two terms as Prime Minister (1919 - 1924, 1939 - 1948), Smuts played a key role in international affairs and was the only person to sign the peace treaties at the end of both the First and Second World Wars. Smuts was born to a farming family in the Cape Colony in 1870. He attended the Victoria College in Stellenbosch where in 1887 he obtained a first-class pass in the higher matriculation examination. He went on to study law at the University of Cambridge and later returned to South Africa to pursue a political career. Smuts became a supporter of the Afrikaner Bond and worked for a time as legal advisor to Cecil Rhodes. In this capacity, “ In October 1895 he made a somewhat unfortunate political début by defending Rhodes against allegations of opportunism and corruption made by Olive Schreiner and her husband, and by declaring his general agreement with Rhodes’s policies.” (Marks 2004). However, the 1895-6 transformed Smuts’s political outlook and he subsequently became a fervent opponent of British expansionism in Southern Africa.

In April 1897 Smuts and Sybella Margaretha Krige (Isie), who he had met when they were both students at Victoria College, were married. In June 1898 he was appointed by Kruger as state attorney of the Transvaal, responsible for law and order in the republic and legal adviser to its executive council. During the 1899-1902 South African War Smuts served as a Boer General and led commandos fighting against the British. After the war, in 1905 he and Louis Botha established the Het Volk party, and in 1910 when the Union of South Africa took place, Botha became Prime Minister and Smuts his deputy, both as members of the newly formed South African Party. Smuts himself was instrumental in drafting the Draft South Africa Act of 1909 which formed the basis of the Union; while he supported the retention of the non-racial franchise at the Cape, he rejected its extension to the rest of South Africa, and he also argued that only ‘persons of European descent’ should be eligible for election to parliament.

During the First World War Smuts was put in charge of the conquest of German East Africa. In 1917 he was invited by Lloyd George to join the Imperial War Cabinet, so he left East Africa for London. Smuts returned to South African politics after the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the war, where he had played a key role, especially in drafting the constitution of the League of Nations. When Botha died in 1919, Smuts was elected Prime Minister, with one of the first challenges he faced being growing urban unrest including strikes by black workers. His harsh suppression of these strikes, which included government forces firing at unarmed protestors at Port Elizabeth and the imprisonment of strike leader Samuel Masabala, form the context of Schreiner’s 1920 letters to Smuts, in which she urgently implores him to reconsider his ‘native policies’. Smuts served as Prime Minister until his defeat in 1924 by the National Party, which had entered into an election pact with the Labour Party. He was later Prime Minister of South Africa again between 1939 and 1948.

Schreiner’s letters to Jan Smuts deal primarily with political matters in South Africa, and especially with Schreiner’s growing unease with the hardening of Smuts’ position on the ‘native question’ over time. In these letters Schreiner tries to engage Smuts in a “political fight” and discusses with him a range of key political developments in South Africa. Her letters to Smuts, while relatively few in number, are amongst her most powerful, prophesising South Africa’s future and exhorting Smuts to take a more enlightened political path. Her first extant letter to Smuts is dated 1 July 1896 and thanks him for his letter to her concerned with one of her ‘Returned South African’ essays. In her letter Schreiner further expands her views on racial ‘mixing’ and the sexual exploitation of black women by white men. She also reacts sharply and negatively to Smuts’ suggestion that her political views and writings are borrowed from her husband, Cronwright-Schreiner. This letter, with its forthright and even combative manner, very much sets the tone of Schreiner’s future correspondence with Smuts.

However, Schreiner’s letters to Smuts from the 1890s are in fact mainly concerned not with their political differences, but with their political common ground; that is the independence of the Boer Republics against the advancing forces of capitalist imperialism. They indicate Schreiner’s support for the Boer cause, her working behind the scenes to prevent war, and her endorsement of Smuts as a potential leader and figure of enormous political promise. Certainly one of her ‘great’ letters to Smuts from this period concerns her conviction that the independence of the Republics was the only safeguard against untrammelled capitalism in southern Africa. On 23 January 1899 she wrote, referring to the defeat of Jameson’s column at Doornkop:

“But the freedom and independence of the Transvaal has for me a much more serious meaning. I look upon the Free State and the Transvaal as the two last little sluice-gates we have left keeping out the flood of Capitalism which  would otherwise sweep in and overwhelm South Africa. The little fight of Doornkop is to me the most memorable, not only in the history of South Africa, but of this century: there for the first time in the history of the world, troops armed, fed, paid, and led (or rather misled!) by the capitalist horde, met the simple citizens of a state and were defeated.”

Schreiner’s letters to Smuts in the period leading to the outbreak of war in 1899 importantly demonstrate her activities in attempting to prevent war, for example by arranging for Smuts to meet Adele Chapin, a close friend of Milner’s and an amateur spy. Her letter of 24 September 1899 indicates that she had been asked to become the war correspondent for the New York Journal, and she discusses at length how she could be most ‘useful’ to the Boer cause if she were to take up the position (which she was prevented by doing when Cronwright-Schreiner arranged for them both to remove to a remote farm in the Cape).

After the war Schreiner’s letters to Smuts peter out somewhat, and then resume in 1908 and take an increasingly exhortatory tone in telling Smuts for example that: “You (and Malan) are the two men I look forward to doing great work for South Africa”. In her subsequent letters, Schreiner uses an array of tactics in her attempts to persuade Smuts to take a more enlightened political position, especially with regard to the ‘native question’. At times she emphasises the notion of duty and responsibility, for example arguing, “Our duty stretches as far as our power of benefiting our fellow creatures goes. It doesn’t end till that ends. And from the man of wide powers, from him much is expected.” At other times she uses humour but with serious intent, as in her 1908 letter written in a mixture of Dutch and Taal, in which she sharply critiques Smuts’s position on Union. And on some occasions when she expresses concern or dismay about Smuts’s rightwards political moves, she self-deprecatingly comments that she hopes she is not ‘boring’ him.

By 1918 and while she was living in Britain, Schreiner seems to have resigned herself to the growing gulf between them, commenting for example: “I love you Jan. It will always be one of the sorrows of my life that I cannot always work heart and soul with you, in public matters.” She did however continue to exhort him to ‘wake up’ to the realities of the modern world, writing on 19 November 1918:  “Don’t you begin to see this is the 20th century! That the 19th is gone forever. It will have to go even in South Africa.” However, perhaps Schreiner’s most powerful and prescient letter, not only to Smuts but to any of her correspondents, was written in October 1920, across at least two days. In it Schreiner, who had by that time returned to South Africa, prophetically spells out the disastrous future she envisages for South Africa if Smuts and his political allies continued with their retrograde and racist policies:

“The next few years are going to determine the whole future of South Africa in 30 or 40 years time. As we sow we shall reap. We may crush the mass of our fellows in South Africa today, as Russia did for generations, but today the serf is in the Palace and where is the Czar?... This is the 20th century; the past is past never to return, even in South Africa. The day of princes, and Bosses, of is gone forever: one must meet the incoming tide and rise on it, or be swept away ^forever.^”

For further information see:
Bernard Friedman (1975) Smuts: A Reappraisal London: Allen and Unwin
W.K. Hancock and Jean van der Poel (eds) (1966-73) Selections from the Smuts Papers (7 volumes) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
W.K. Hancock (1962) Smuts: The Sanguine Years, 1870 - 1919 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
W.K. Hancock (1968) Smuts: The Fields of Force, 1919 - 1950 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Kenneth Ingham (1986) Jan Christian Smuts: The Conscience of a South African London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Anthony Lentin (2010) General Smuts: South Africa London: Haus
Shula Marks (2004) ‘Smuts, Jan Christiaan (1870-1950)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/36171
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collection icon Aletta: The Aletta Jacobs collection is extensive and available on microfilm at the Aletta IIVA archive in Amsterdam. Schreiner’... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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collection icon National Archives Depot, Pretoria: The National Archives Depot is Pretoria is a leading location for archival papers across a wide time-period, organisations an... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown: The National English Literary Museum is the leading location for collections pertaining to the imaginative and creative writi... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon SCCS Edited Extracts: Four groups of edited extracts from Olive Schreiner's letters can be accessed from here, made by her estranged husband Cronwr... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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