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Why are Afrikaners still holding General Smuts in highest regard?

Allow me first to pick on Afrikaners to make my point, even though I expect to be accused of racism and being divisive.

I have been most astounded by the general hypocrisy of South Africans, all South Africans. But I have particularly observed that many Afrikaners are passionate about their history and guard it jealously; that they hold Afrikaner heroes in the highest esteem, from Paul Kruger to General Jan Smuts and Hansie Cronje.

While none of us would contest the contribution of many of Afrikaner heroes to history, when we are less biased and examine their conduct using current moral standards and values, we may conclude that their status in history is grossly exaggerated and in need of revision.

The large majority of Germans is of one mind and rejects Adolf Hitler, who once was revered by the general populace. The Germans recognise and appreciate the gravity of crimes against humanity committed during the Third Reich against Jews, and reject anything that has to do with the Holocaust. In spite of some celebrated achievements that Hitler inspired, the current generation of Germans refuses to have any association with him and what he stood for.

South Africa is different. There is selective rejection of questionable characters of our history. Few Afrikaners during Smuts’s rule — and post-1948 when Hendrik Verwoerd had ascended to power and intensified the repression of the majority of black people in pursuit of apartheid — openly challenged the inhumane government.

Apartheid flourished for many years until its timely demise in 1994. Trying to locate Afrikaners that supported and defended apartheid today is like trying to find hoendertande (chicken teeth) — they are extinct.

The question then arises: If the majority of Afrikaners have embraced the new dispensation, reconciliation and nation building, why do they still hold a racist like Smuts in such high regard? My simple logic informs that rejection of a particular ideology dictates, similarly, a rejection of the lasting vestiges of such ideology. If most Afrikaners detest racism, then why do they collectively embrace a symbol of it?

We cannot deny the contributions of Smuts during the world war and to the formation of the League of Nations (now the United Nations). He was an accomplished and distinguished military strategist and general of the Republican Forces. But his political beliefs were less flattering, particularly if you were a black person or Indian. It is common knowledge that Smuts and Winston Churchill shared mutual admiration, and both did not disguise their disgust at Mahatma Gandhi. Churchill saw Africans as barbarians and savages, and he is similarly revered as a hero by English people who claim to be revolted by acts and expression of racism.

Smuts said to Gandhi on their first meeting: “I could never entertain a dislike for our people. You know I am a barrister. I had some Indian fellow students in my time. But I must do my duty … you’re a simple frugal race, in many respects more intelligent than we are. You belong to a civilisation that is thousands of years old. Ours, as you say, is but an experiment. Who knows but that the whole damn thing will perish before long. But you see, why we do no want you here.”

Smuts was relentless in frustrating all attempts by Gandhi to secure political rights for the Indian community. While he claimed to be opposed to segregation, he believed that black people and Indians had no place in the political arena. Churchill’s impression of Gandhi was less flattering. He thought of Gandhi as a fakir, a Muslim who lives by begging, and a spiritual quack. Both Churchill and Smuts shared the same hypocrisy, their repugnance for Nazism and fascism, while advancing the sustained repression of Africans and Indians in the Commonwealth.

Churchill never made it a secret that he preferred Gandhi dead. He said in a letter to King George VI, when Gandhi was sick, that “the old humbug Gandhi is lasting much longer than we were assured was possible”. When Gandhi sailed away in 1914, Smuts remarked: “The saint has left our shores. I sincerely hope forever.” Talk about Smuts being a wolf showing his teeth, disguising his grimace as an amiable smile.

Smuts was not secretive about his beliefs in white supremacy and his determination to protect its sustainability. He confided to Churchill: “It has been our ideal to make South Africa a white man’s country … There are certain things about which all South Africans are agreed, all parties and all sections, except those who are quite mad. The first is that it is fixed policy to maintain white supremacy in South Africa.”

Smuts’s reference to “all South Africans” excluded the majority: black people, Indians and coloureds. It is an affirmation of Smuts’s disregard of the majority of people in the country as sub-human and not citizens of their own country. When he opposed segregation and said “the idea that the natives must all be removed and confined in their own kraals is in my opinion the greatest nonsense I have ever heard”, he did not do so out of expression of interest for the welfare and enfranchisement of black people.

Hansie Cronje was exposed as a corrupt charlatan and is best remembered as a man who shamed cricket and tarnished its image, yet the multitudes of Afrikaners who consistently lament corruption in the government continue to see Hansie as the best thing since a thong. If corruption is something we detest so much, why is Hansie a special case?

Black people also would give Mugabe a standing ovation and cheer him during his mad rantings against Britain and the US, while loudly expressing their disgust at xenophobic attacks against Zimbabweans, but support a repressive regime that continues to butcher its people and subject them to tragic existence. We complain about the high levels of violent crimes, but we harbour these murderous criminals in our townships. They live among us, we know them, yet we lack the courage of conviction to report them to the authorities and help rid our country of the scourge of criminality. It is an indictment on all of those who know these murderous individuals and do nothing.

Hypocrisy is a defining characteristic of ourselves as a country. South Africans are happy to bribe a traffic officer to escape a heavy traffic fine or prison, buy pirated DVDs and continuously whine about the levels of crime when they too are criminals! It is important that we begin to reflect on ourselves and question whether our conduct is consistent with the shared and aspirant values of society; whether the history we celebrate sufficiently defines all that should represent us and discard what is in conflict with where we ought to be. By continuing to embrace our offensive past we betray what we purport to stand for now and hope to sustain into the future. Our society will not progress towards normality if we continue on our current path.


  • Sentletse Diakanyo

    Sentletse Diakanyo's blogs may contain views on any subject which may upset sensitive readers. Parental guidance is strongly advised.