General Jan Christiaan Smuts

Why General Smuts won on 4 September 1939

 

F. D. Tothill

Even now, almost half a century after it collapsed, any conclusions about the working of Fusion and its chances of long-term success if the Second World War had not cut short its life must necessarily be tentative. Nevertheless, it is difficult to disagree with the contemporary National Party supporters who saw it as a "deurmekaarspul van allerlei uiteenlopende elemente" which, "in uiterlike vorm eenheid probeer wys, maar wat innerlik vinnig aan [die] gis is". It was "kunsmatig"

Other, less partisan, observers expressed similar views. The magazine The Round Table, which covered British Commonwealth affairs, reported two months before the 1938 General Election that the United Party was still "a coalition rather than a fusion" and its long term prospects were "somewhat uncertain". There were "signs of fissure over personalities and principles, and many people to-day are asking for how long fusion will endure"

Nine months later, after the furore in and out of Parliament over anthems and flags and the appointment of A. P. J. Fourie to the Senate, The Round Table was writing that "the Government's position has been so weakened that a General Election to-day might well be disastrous for it".

Ostensibly intended to bridge the gulf between Afrikaner and English-speaker, Fusion left untouched the fundamental cleavages in White South African society. The manner of the country's entry into the Second World War was to bring these dramatically to the fore, but they were there all the time. An aspect of Fusion known to contemporary observers but to which historians do not seem to have paid attention was the growth of the Smuts wing of the parliamentary United Party and the decline of the Hertzog wing. Without this factor. Smuts could not have obtained a majority on 4 September 1939, not even with the help of the three smaller groups which aligned themselves with him.

He had entered Fusion in December 1934 numerically the weaker, with 57 supporters. In the next five years he not only held on to the core of his House of Assembly support but also increased it. By 1939 his wing of the United Party comprised some 70 MPs. General Hertzog, on the other hand, had presided over a split in the National Party. His original pre-Coalition following of 74 dropped firstly to 55 when 18 members of the party accompanied Dr Malan into the wilderness in 1934, then to 38 in the period up to 4 September 1939. By the latter date the Hertzog wing of the United Party and Dr Malan's "Purified" National Party combined were insufficient to win the day on General Hertzog's neutrality motion, a vote they could conceivably have won six years earlier when together they commanded exactly half of the membership of the House of Assembly. As Die Volksblad aptly put it: "Na sesjaar van samesmelting het die Nasionale gedagte, wat getalle in die Volksraad betref, swakker daaruit gekom as wat hy daarin gegaan het."4 The position in September 1939 was:

 

 

Composition of House of Assembly early September

 

 

Participants in the vote of 4 September

Smuts 69
Hertzog 39

National Party 29
Dominion Party 8
Labour Party 4
Native Reps. 3
Vacant 1

 


Smuts 66
Hertzog 38
National Party 29
Dominion 7
Labour Party 4
Native Reps 3


153


147

The vacancy (Pietermaritzburg District) arose from the elevation of F.M Broome, a Smuts supporter, to the Bench. W. Bawden (Langlaagte) and H.C, de Wet (Caledon), also known Smuts supporters, and K, Rood (Vereeniging), who was revealed to be one after 4 September, were absent from tin Assembly, as was J.G. Derbyshire (Durban Umbilo). The Speaker, Dr E. G Jansen (Vryheid), did not take part in the vote.

In terms of numbers, there were two main reasons for the rise of the Smuts wing of the United Party and the decline of the Hertzog wing. The first was General Hertzog's loss of ground to Dr Malan in the Cape and Orange Free State platteland where he suffered a net loss of seven seats between 1933 and 4 September 1939.

The second reason, which is the principal theme of this article,6 was the capture by Smuts supporters at the nomination stage in 1938 (in one case initially before a by-election in 1936) of eight seats which had returned National Party candidates at the Coalition of 1933. Possession of these seats, coupled with his retention of the nucleus of his pre-Fusion support and the vote of at least one former Nationalist, was to prove decisive for Smuts on 4 September.

Although Hertzog's following in the House of Assembly eroded steadily over the entire period between the 1933 General Election and 4 September 1939, the 1938 General Election, the first nation-wide test of Fusion, when he incurred a net loss of twelve seats, was the largest single factor in his decline. It was also the principal factor in Smut's rise. Smuts was the chief beneficiary of the 1938 General Election, registering a net gain of eleven seats including the eight taken from Hertzog at the nomination stage. The National Party gained six seats.

Until the General Elections of the 1950s and the 1960 Referendum the 1938 General Election was the most hotly contested since Union. Not only was the average percentage poll of 81,73 the highest until 1953,7 but in 32 constituencies (one-fifth of the total number of seats in the Union) on the Cape (20), Orange Free State (10) and Transvaal platteland (2) the average poll was over 90 per cent, with a high of 95,75 per cent at Hoopstad.8 Fifty-five constituencies had a percentage poll of between 80 and 90 per cent and 50 between 70 and 80 per cent. Only eight urban constituencies fell below 70 per cent and none below 60 per cent.

An analysis of the Smuts and Hertzog wings must necessarily rely on the assumption that the 4 September vote disclosed definitively the identities of their members, bringing "out of the woodwork" those MPs, mainly the new intake of 1938, who had not yet had an opportunity to demonstrate publicly where their loyalties lay. With a few exceptions, the composition of both wings was well defined before 4 September.

Thus Dr Malan identified for an audience of his supporters in Krugersdorp in late August three sections of the United Party on the neutrality question. The first, pro-war, headed by Smuts comprised "die grootste deel van die lede en L.V.'s van die Verenigde Party". The second, pro-neutrality, included men such as General J.C.G. Kemp and Senators A.P.J. Fourie and W.J.C. Brebner. The third, led by Hertzog himself, was sitting on the fence and refused to take a position until confronted by the reality of war.

The Smuts group of 69 was a bit of a mishmash, consisting of 33 MPs who had entered Parliament at various stages between 1910 and Fusion in 1934 as South African Party representatives, five former Unionists, one former Labourite, four ex-Nationalists (one had been a member of Tielman Roos's Central Party before this merged with the United Party and another had flirted with Roos in 1933), four who had commenced their parliamentary careers in 1933 as Independents, three first elected as United Party Members in post-Fusion by-elections up to 1938, eighteen who were first elected in 1938, and one in 1939. The latter had stood unsuccessfully as a Roos candidate in 1933. The eighteen elected in 1938 were the largest single group, followed by the 1929 intake of fifteen

Forty-three of these MPs represented urban constituencies: seventeen in the Cape, 24 in the Transvaal and one each in the Orange Free State and Natal, Twenty-six represented rural constituencies: thirteen in the Cape, eight in the Transvaal, one in the Orange Free State and four in Natal. General Hertzog's group of 39 was more homogeneous. Apart from Hertzog himself, eleven had entered Parliament as National Party MPs between the party's inception and 1929. Ten were first returned for the party in 1933 and 1934, before Fusion, and sixteen as United Party Members between 1935 and 1939. One, Col. Jacob Wilkens (Ventersdorp), started out as an Independent in 1933. Thirty-three of Hertzog's MPs represented rural constituencies: seven in the Cape, eighteen in the Transvaal, seven in the Orange Free State and one in Natal. All six of his urban seats were in the Transvaal. By contrast, all of Dr Malan's 29 MPs represented rural constituencies, 27 in the Cape and Orange Free State.

In accordance with the distribution of the language groups in the country, the majority, but by no means all, of General Smuts's voters would have been English-speaking and General Hertzog's Afrikaans-speaking. The vast majority of Dr Malan's voters would have been Afrikaners. The Coloured voters in the Cape, numbering about twenty-five thousand, would mostly have supported United Party over National Party candidates.

If Fusion had lasted a while longer it might not have mattered who were Smuts men and who Hertzog's. In many cases their parliamentary careers were distinguished mainly by their votes on 4 September.

Reference is made by writers on the period, including some of the participants in the 4 September vote, to waverers (Deneys Reitz), "draadsitters" (A.J. van Wyk), people who had not yet made up their minds (B.K. Long), the uncommitted (Piet van der Byl) and the uncertain (Bertha Solomon) -- the numbers vary -- who were courted by Smuts loyalists and Hertzog loyalists before the decisive vote on the evening of 4 September. Morris Kentridge, the former Labourite in the Smuts wing, wrote in that connection of "intensive lobbying".13 The identities of these people are obscure but they were presumably to be found mainly among the 1938 and 1939 intake of MPs, of whom 24 supported Smuts, and twenty Hertzog.

There is no reason to doubt that there were indeed waverers and "draadsitters". The world was being turned upside down and it was quite natural that MPs should have been concerned about the future and their personal positions, especially those dependent upon their parliamentary income for a living. Following A.W. Stadler there may, however, have been few of the latter because by the early 1930s "Parliament had become an assembly of 'not- ables",15 meaning that its members had achieved eminence (and riches) in other fields before they became MPs.

It was less likely that the debate which preceded the vote had much influence on the outcome, even though the caucus system was suspended in the case of the soon-to-be-split United Party. R. H. Henderson, who supported Smuts in the vote, pointed out in his memoirs with reference to this debate that "there were no conversions by debate, not one. There never is conversion by Parliamentary debate...",16 a remark that strikes a chord with those familiar with the restrictions on freedom of speech and action prevalent in parliamentary politics where backbenchers, especially on the government side, are expected to hold their tongues on the floor of the chamber and to vote the party line.

B. J. Schoeman, who voted for the pro-neutrality motion, in essence agreed with Henderson's view in his own memoirs with particular reference to Hertzog's allegedly pro-Hitler statement.17 Although other participants contended that there was conversion, they may subconsciously have dramatised the situation. This is not to denigrate the significance of the head-counting which was conducted over the weekend 2 to 4 September. Nothing in politics is ever completely cut and dried and, after all, even such experienced practitioners as Hertzog and Smuts were deceived by their strengths: almost to the last the former thought that he would win and the latter that he would lose.

Direct contests between Hertzogites and Malanites in the Cape and Orange Free State platteland constituencies had been a test of Fusion's popularity among Afrikaners because they took place in areas where the great majority of voters were Afrikaans-speaking. That the outcome favoured Malan demonstrated clearly that Fusion had but limited appeal to the platteland areas of those provinces.

It confirmed that Fusion's supposed triumphs had not dispelled the deep suspicion in which grassroots supporters of the original National Party founded by Hertzog himself, held Smuts and the urban-orientated English-speaking, pro-British element in his wing of the party. Various local factors may also have been at play, including protest votes against the government's agricultural policy.

Hertzog did not lose by much in the way of individual voter support -- his candidates drew 41 712 votes to the National Party's 46 229 spread over fourteen seats.18 Nonetheless, the figures suggest that the writing was on the wall for him and that it was only a matter of time before his support in the Cape and the Orange Free State, including his own seat and that of his chief lieutenant, N.C. Havenga, succumbed to the Nationalist pressure. In any event, contemporary observers attributed the National Party's "defeat" in the Orange Free State, where it garnered 46 231 votes to the United Party's 51 148,19 to General Hertzog's "personal ascendancy" in that province. Both the Hertzog wing and the National Party were pro-neutrality, so Hertzog's loss of seats to Malan had no bearing on his defeat in the House of Assembly except possibly to make the pro-neutrality vote more solid because some of his defeated supporters could have been unmasked as Smuts men if they had been present.

On the face of it, therefore, ceteris paribus, the vote of 4 September turned on the seats that Smuts acquired from Hertzog. All eight MPs were in the Assembly that day. Eight votes deducted from the pro-war total of 80 and added to the pro-neutrality total of 67 would have given Hertzog the victory by 75 to 72, without the need for the Speaker, a Hertzog man, to exercise a casting vote.

To his contemporaries Smuts, "Slim Jannie", blessed with the "flexibility of dishonesty",21 was a masterly political tactician, perhaps the most astute in South Africa.22 Thus National Party opponents of Fusion, including Dr Malan himself, had predicted in 1933-1934 that "genl. Smuts gaan horn [Generaal Hertzog] uitoorle".23 Two writers of the period, F.S. Crafford and 0. Pirow, did much to help propagate the view which persists to this day that Smuts's victory on 4 September 1939 was evidence of the "uitoorle" and the astuteness.

The contemporary National Party press also took this position. Thus an editorial in Die Volksblad on 5 September 1939, before it was known that the Governor-General had rejected Hertzog's request for a dissolution of Parliament and a General Election, held that:

Genl. Smuts het in die afgelope sesjaar sy kaarte knaphandig gespeel. Hy het sy tyd geduldig afgewag, maar intussen sy posisie in die Verenigde Party gaandeweg versterk. Nie alleen het hy gesorg dat by gehou het wat hy had toe hy met genl. Hertzog saamgesmelt het nie, maar hy het tewens eike moontlike geleentheid te baat geneem om 'n oud-Sap in 'n Nasionale setel in te skuif. Vandag het ons die toestand dat die verteenwoordigers van ou Nasionale vestings soos Frankfort, Rustenburg, Potchefstroom en Carolina hulle geskaar het langs die Imperialiste. Ja, hulle sit selfs saam met die Dominioniete!

Smuts's propagandists tried to exploit the narrowness of his victory and the identity of the seats to which he owed it. A confidential fund-raising memorandum issued in December 1939 by the Union Unity Fund, which financed the wartime government's unofficial internal propaganda arm, the Union Unity Truth Service, asserted that chaos, bloodshed and economic collapse would have attended a policy of neutrality:

How narrow the escape from these horrors will be appreciated when we realise that included in the majority were the members for the following constituencies:

Calvinia, Kimberley (District), Frankfort, Potchefstroom, Rustenburg, Carolina, North-East Rand -- all of which were Hertzog strongholds before the Coalition in 1933 which led to the formation of the United Party. Had they gone against us, the Neutrality (pro-Nazi) Party would actually have had a majority.

Potchefstroom, Rustenburg and Carolina were among the constituencies which passed from Hertzog to Smuts in 1938. The Orange Free State seat of Frankfort had first returned a Smuts supporter in 1936 at the death of the sitting member, J.B. (Pen) Wessels, who had held it since 1915 as a member of the old National Party. The other four were Brakpan, North Rand, Pretoria West and Wakkerstroom. All but Frankfort were Transvaal seats.

If the meaning of the results of the direct contests between the supporters of Hertzog and Malan is clear enough, it is less clear why Smuts should have improved his position in the United Party at Hertzog's expense. This despite its apparent confirmation of his astuteness.

It has been suggested 27 that the holders of some of the eight seats -- H. N. W. Botha (Frankfort), J. M. Conradie (Rustenburg), J.P. Fourie (Carolina) and H. van der Merwe (Potchefstroom) are mentioned -- crossed over from Hertzog to Smuts on 4 September 1939. But this does not stand up to examination because, as Die Volksblad pointed out, these men were Smuts supporters before they received the United Party nominations for their constituencies and their votes could not have come as a surprise. It was with specific reference to most of the eight cases, mentioning the nominees by name that Die Transvaler reported before the 1938 General Election on the growth of the Smuts wing of the party in the Transvaal at the expense of the Hertzog wing.

Already on 11 February 1938 Die Transvaler's cartoon, "Wie hou die leisels", was making this point. It depicted a large, smug former Unionist -- a financial magnate -- driving the cart of government and a somewhat smaller, equally smug former "Sap" -- a farmer -- seated in the body of the cart facing the rear, legs draped over the tailboard, gazing contentedly at an even smaller, worried former "Nat" -- another farmer-- trying to climb on. The dialogue was superfluous:

Oud-Nat: Kerels, waar's my piek dan?
Oud-Sap: Hierdie lamlendige karretjie kan ons nie meer almal hou nie, ou broer -- ek voel so jammer vir jou!
Oud-Unionis (binnensmonds): Een ou boer sal nog gaan, maar die tweede sal ek wraggies nie weer oplaai nie. Die vrotsige ou perd [the people] trek ook so sleg.

Dr H.F. Verwoerd claimed in an editorial in the same edition of the newspaper, perhaps not without justification, that despite the temptation to deal the National Party a severe blow there had been no general election immediately after Fusion because "Die oud-Nasionaliste was bevrees dat hulle in die onderskeie kiesafdelings opsy geskuif sou word deur die oud-S.A.P. lede en genl. Hertzog wou nie he dat genl. Smuts se aanhang versterk word teenoor syne nie."

There can be no doubt about H. N. W. (Manie) Botha's loyalties. He had been a Brigadier-General in the Great War with service in East Africa. Before that he had played an active role in the suppression of the 1914 rebellion. He became a Major General and Officer Commanding the abortive Third Armoured Division in the Second World War.30 He was at first opposed for the Frankfort nomination in 1936 by a Bloemfontein advocate, H.J. Edeling, but the latter withdrew. He does not seem to have been opposed in 1938.

In an indignant editorial in Die Volksblad at the time of Botha's nomination, Dr A.J.R. van Rhijn called him '"n uiterste Sap". The former South African Party, he wrote, was not content just to be in a majority in the United Party but in "ou Nasionale setels word Sappe as kandidate gestel om op hierdie wyse die Sap-vleuel in die Verenigde Party nog verder te versterk". He implied that the agreement of the South African and National Parties not to challenge each other at the 1933 General Election for the seats each was holding at the time was still operative. But that applied only to the situation in 1933. By 1937 it had been decided to take action against candidates for United Party nominations who canvassed party members for votes on the basis of their previous affiliations.

Why did Manie Botha, a known Smuts-man, gain nomination in what was obviously a Hertzog stronghold, the seat previously having been held by one of the general's closest friends? A letter in Die Volksblad on 15 September 1939 claimed that:

Te Vrede, op 10 Februarie 1936 by 'n openbare vergadering, het hy [Botha] van die verhoog voor twaalfhonderd mense, toe hy aan genl. Conroy se sy gestaan het, gese: 'Ek is trots om 'n volgeling van genl. Hertzog te wees en staan rotsvas agter horn. Ek sal horn 100 persent steun, deur dik en dun.' Op hierdie plegtige belofte het Frankfort en Vrede se kiesers vir horn gestem en horn as hul verteenwoordiger na die Volksraad gestuur, om genl. Hertzog te help Suid-Afrika se belange te behartig.

Another reason, which applies equally to the other cases, was suggested by N. L. (Tjaart) van der Walt, United Party Transvaal Provincial Secretary from March 1939 until the break up of the party:

Die oud-Nasionaliste het uit hul pad gegaan om hul nuwe party-vriende tuis te laat voel in die party waarvan genl. Hertzog die leier was. Persoonlike vriende en geharde ondersteuners van genl. Smuts uit die jaar vroeg is in tal van gevalle in die besture geplaas, ten einde die opregtheid omtrent samewerking met die daad te betoon, net soos die Frankforters gedoen het toe hulle genl. Manie Botha tot partykandidaat gekies het ...

Apart from Manie Botha, two others among the eight were South African Party supporters long before 1933. Col. W.R. Collins, United Party Chief Whip, had held Ermelo for the South African Party from 1916 to 1933, then for the United Party until 1938. He lost the Ermelo nomination in 1938 to a local attorney, David Jackson, according to Die Transvaler a former Nationalist, who was said to have packed the party membership roll with "poor whites" and to have conducted a campaign against him in the constituency. Jackson's victory was decisive. In a "miniature election" (the terminology of the time) for the nomination he received 2116 votes, Collins 1 505 and a third candidate 574.36 Collins was then mentioned as a possible candidate for Boksburg and Lydenburg. In the end he was nominated and elected for Wakkerstroom.

The sitting Member for Pretoria West, Col. M. S. W. du Toit, a retired Deputy-Commissioner of Police who had been returned for the National Party in 1929, did not seek re-election. I. (Claud) Wallach of Wallach's Printing and Publishing Company and Die Volkstem, secured the United Party nomination at a "miniature election", drawing 650 votes to his opponent's 575.37 For years he had been a business associate of Smuts and Louis Esselen, the party's General Secretary.

If old "Saps" could not have been "oorstappers" (a term of reproach in the context of 4 September), one old "Nat" certainly was. Lt. Col. K. Rood, the incumbent at Vereeniging, had entered the Assembly as a National Party Member in 1929. Absent on 4 September -- he was on his way back to South Africa from Europe -- he opted for Smuts on his return. The indications are, however, that he had changed sides some time before.

Die Transvaler of 19 March 1938 quoted him to the effect that, while people wanted to trip him up, "ek weet dat daar nog genoeg regdenkende Afrikaners is wat sal sorg dat ek my setel behou: ek is oortuig daarvan dat al die lede van die ou S. A. P. agter my staan", which was possibly evidence of his leanings. His man of the world background as a director of industrial and insurance companies 39 his military experience -- he was a member of the Defence Council 40 -- and his easy familiarity with Louis Esselen, a convinced Smuts man, support the hypothesis that he was more comfortable in the Smuts milieu. In 1934 he had collaborated with Esselen on the propaganda booklet "What Coalition has achieved for South Africa." He does not seem to have been opposed for the United Party nomination in 1938.

Another genuine "oorstapper" was C.G.S. Heyns (North-East Rand.) Unlike Rood, Heyns may have been influenced by his personal financial position.41 Others sometimes referred to as "oorstappers", such as Colin Steyn (Bloemfontein City) and Louw Steytler (Kimberley District) had, by associating with Tielman Roos before Coalition, already severed their connection with Nationalism.

If the idea of "oorstappery" by the holders of the eight seats does not hold water another explanation, also put forward by A.J. van Wyk in VyfDae, at least by implication, has Louis Esselen as the villain.

Van Wyk writes: "Sedert 1934 was die partymasjien in sy [Esselen's] hande en het hy Smuts-manne ingestoot waar tevore Hertzog-manne was -- tot in die Volksraad" (pp. 18-19), an assertion he repeats on page 115. "(Vroeer is vermeld dat Esselen, as hoofsekretaris van die VP, die partymasjinerie in sy hande gehad het en, waar hy kon, 'n Smuts-man in die pick van 'n Hertzog man gestoot het)."

In the sense that he preferred to work outside the glare of public attention, Louis Esselen was somewhat atypical in the context of South African politics. But enough is known of him to suggest that he left deep footprints in the sand of the country's political history in the years after 1921 when he became General Secretary of the South African Party. The lack of a good (indeed, any political biography or even a long on him is an unfortunate hiatus in our historical writing. Pending such a study, the United Party papers at the University of South Africa provide researchers with fascinating glimpses of the man, his style and his influence.

Applied to the eight constituencies under consideration, the implication of van Wyk's contention that Esselen pushed Smuts men whenever he could is that he steered the nominations in these cases in the direction of Smuts rather than Hertzog supporters. While Van Wyk does not provide supporting evidence, this proposition has a certain appeal when borne in mind that all but Frankfort were Transvaal constituencies and that Esselen's grip on the Transvaal machine was probably stronger than in the case of the other provinces.

For public consumption, the United Party's line on nominations was that "being a democratic party, it abides by the decision of the majority of its members in regard to the selection of candidates as in other matters; and no leader or governing body has the right to force a candidate on to any constituency against the wishes of the members concerned. Only in certain circumstances, when asked to do so, under the provisions of Art. 8(e) and/or par. 14 of the Regulations can the Head Committee take a hand in the nomination of a candidate."

This had been the South African Party's line. There is at the University of South Africa the draft in Smuts's own hand of a telegram to the South African Party MP for Queenstown who, opposed for the nomination before the "Coalition" election of 1933, had appealed to

Last updated : 18-Feb-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 04-Apr-2011