2010 marks the 60th anniversary of the death of Jan Christiaan Smuts, the JC I was referring to in the title. So far this event seems to have passed by with little interest in the South African media and society. For me Jan Smuts represents a number of things, but if I were to sum him up in one word it would be “contradiction” when we look at his life through the prism of modern norms and values. In essence, he is the perfect example (in my opinion) of yin and yang, light and dark if you will.
So what’s the “light” Smuts offers us?
He is, perhaps one of the greatest statesmen ever produced by South Africa. Not only did he play a vital role in the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, he also played a vital role at the Peace Convention and subsequent signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Smuts played a critical role in the drafting of the treaties that governed the League of Nations as well as the United Nations. He was, in many respects, an ardent multilateralist long before the term became vogue. Indeed, the current international order, with its myriad of inter-locking systems and rules, is a result of the foundations laid and lessons learnt since the formation of the League of Nations post the First World War.
He also had enough foresight to see that the Treaty of Versailles would have a disastrous impact on Germany and would not lead to a long-term peace on the European continent. He shared this view with Keynes and the accuracy of both men’s views was confirmed nearly 30 years later with the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the Second World War. His stature as a statesman was also recognised by Churchill who included Smuts in his War Cabinet between 1939 and 1945. Interestingly, there are a number of institutes of international affairs that acknowledge the work of Smuts in one form or another. One such example being the South African Institute of International Affairs, housed at Jan Smuts House on the Wits campus.
He also gave the world the philosophical theory of “holism” or “the tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution” (as defined in his book published in 1926 titled Holism and Evolution).
So if that’s the “light”, what’s the “dark”?
Smuts was one of the architects of the 1913 Land Act. This piece of legislation was one of the key building blocks of the system of apartheid. The effects of this Act still reverberate around the whole of South Africa to this day. Smuts also viewed South African “natives” as being barbarians who cannot govern themselves. This played a role not only in his domestic politics, but also his international politics.
To this end he was a strong supporter of the “trust” system of the League of Nations and United Nations that required developed countries to look after former colonial states until these “barbarous” states were fit to look after themselves at some later (and undefined) point in time.
I am not condoning his racist attitudes at all, but I think that Smuts would have been pragmatic enough to realise when the game was up viz a viz apartheid and set the train in motion that De Klerk put in motion in 1989. Perhaps he was just a product of his generation and the social construct that he grew up in?
More importantly I think that the life and politics of Jan Smuts can offer some important lessons for today’s politicians. For me, there are three important lessons.
Firstly, politicians need to be able to embrace the light and dark that exist within them. They need to be able to acknowledge that they are just people who can fail, just as well as succeed at any undertaking. Furthermore, they need to be able to acknowledge their positive and negative aspects of their personalities. One example that springs to mind here is Thabo Mbeki.
The second lesson is that politicians need to develop foresight. They need to realise that every policy decision they make will have an impact, not only on the present but the long-term future as well. It may mean not following a specific policy route if the long-term results are more negative than the short-term positives. Do politicians have the backbone to do this when they really try to survive from one election to the next? There is no way that the 1913 Land Act could have been sustainable in the long-term, Smuts himself may have acknowledged this. The system would have had to be reversed and it is that back-peddling that successive ANC governments have been dealing with (how well, is a different question). In essence, modern South Africans are trying to clean up a mess in 1913. Perhaps a mandatory course of foresight development would be apt for all politicians?
The third lesson is simply this — history (and shit) happens. We cannot change it. We cannot whitewash it. This is a point I have personally struggled with when it comes to the life of Smuts. While I am in awe of his work as a statesman, I have long loathed his racist attitudes and policies. Like I said earlier, I am looking at his life through the prism of my liberal value system, so I accept the fact that one man’s racist is another man’s … something or other. In essence, for South African society, we need to be able to embrace and celebrate the humanity of people that have made substantial contributions to our society. This means acknowledging and even celebrating their light and dark. They were just human after all. Perhaps the revisionist history being written about Mandela (particularly his younger years) is evidence of the acknowledgement of and movement towards this more nuanced position.
In essence, there are too many politicians and not enough statesmen.
So JC, wherever you are, I would like to acknowledge your contributions to South African society and the international order, even if it isn’t cool to do so in this day and age.