General Jan Christiaan Smuts was born near Riebeeck West in the Cape Colony on 24 May 1870. His mother taught him the elements of reading and writing in English, and he only entered school at the age of 12, when his elder brother Michiel died.
After only five years of formal schooling, he matriculated with distinction at the Victoria College in Stellenbosch. His time at Stellenbosch is considered significant, as there he embraced the political philosophy of J.H Hofmeyr “Onze Jan”, the leader of the Afrikaner Bond.
It was also during his time at Stellenbosch that he developed an affinity for botany under Professor R. Marloth and met his future wife, Sybella Margaretha “Isie” Krige, the daughter of a leading local farmer.
In 1891, he gained a double first in the combined literary and science degree examination of the University of the Cape of Good Hope, which is now the University of South Africa (UNISA). This achievement earned him the Ebden scholarship to study at Cambridge University.
In October of that year, he entered Christ’s College in Cambridge to study law. His high intellect and methodical method of study enabled him to top the lists for all intercollegiate examinations. In 1894, he achieved the unprecedented distinction of first place in both parts of the law course.
He returned to South Africa in 1895 and practised as an advocate in Cape Town. Smuts was attracted to politics and was a supporter of the Rhodes-Hofmeyr partnership until he was disillusioned by the Jameson Raid.
He later married Krige in 1897 and together they settled in Johannesburg. A year later, he gave up his private law practice and became State Attorney and advisor to the Executive Council in the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR, South African Republic) under President Paul Kruger at the age of 28.
During the Second Anglo-Boer War, he was deeply involved in the planning and execution of the extended guerrilla phase of the conflict. He distinguished himself as a military strategist and became a general in the Republican Forces. He attended the Vereeniging Peace Conference in 1902 as legal adviser to the Transvaal government.
After peace was signed, he returned to Pretoria and again went into legal practice. Here he and Louis Botha formed the Het Volk Party. By 1907, he was appointed Minister of Education and colonial secretary in the Botha government in the Transvaal Colony.
During this time, he devoted his energies to the achievement of a political union of the four British colonies in South Africa and was largely responsible for the drafting of the Union of South Africa's constitution as a delegate to the National Convention.
In 1908, Smuts was also confronted with resistance from the Indian population in South Africa, led by M.K Gandhi. Ghandi and the Indian community were protesting against compulsory registration as dictated by the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance of 1906, and were imprisoned. After writing to him from prison, Smuts met with Gandhi, and agreed to make registration voluntary, which became known as the Gandhi-Smuts- compromise.
His view on the treatment of Black people in the future Union was that, while it was the duty of Whites to deal justly with them and raise them up in civilization, they must not be given political power. At the time, Smuts believed that reconciliation between Afrikaans and English-speakers was a priority, and vital to the future of success of South Africa after the Anglo-Boer War.
Smuts was later Minister of Interior, Defence and Mines in the first Union Cabinet. Due to his reconciliatory attitude towards the English he was unpopular with his kinsmen. He also antagonised Afrikaner Nationalists by not reprieving Jopie Fourie, the only rebel executed after the failed Boer rebellion of 1914-1915.
During the First World War, he excelled as field general in the German South-West African and East African campaigns and also served on the Imperial War Cabinet. He was instrumental in the creation of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and ensured the independence of the British dominions.
Smuts played an important role in the drafting of the constitution of the League of Nations, forerunner of the United Nations. In 1919, he attended the Paris Peace Conference with Botha and, following Botha's death in August, became Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa.
In 1921, he merged the Union Party and the South African Party and strengthened his power base. Due to his severe handling of the Rand Rebellion in 1922; the Bulhoek Massacre and action against the Bondelswarts in South-West Africa, Smuts lost the next election in 1924 to J.B.M. Hertzog and his National Party (NP).
During his time as the political opposition, Smuts made some important contributions to the field of science. One of these contributions was Smuts’ proposal of holism, which he defined as “the tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sums of the parts through creative evolution.”
His book, Holism and Evolution (1926) developed this concept as a philosophy, which accorded considerable status to the worth of the human personality and its evolution. Contemporary thinkers considered holism and important contribution to the human sciences, and Smut’s work was translated into German by Alfred Adler, who regarded his theory of “individual psychology” as holistic.
However, Smuts’ theory of holism was attacked by Karl Popper, as he regarded this “organic philosophy” as a variant of other similar strains of philosophy, such as fascism. However, holism was again taken up in the 1980s, and has been propagated as a “brilliant development” by New Age philosophers.
In 1930, the British Association for the Advancement of Science honoured him by requesting him to take up office as their president the following year. Smuts’ address was titled “The Scientific World Picture of Today” and his contribution made mention of developments in physics, nuclear physics and astronomical theory.
In addition to his contributions to philosophy, Smuts also became an authority on the different types of grasses in the South African veld, delivered addresses to notable societies and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Smuts also wrote an unpublished book on American poet Walt Whitman, called Walt Whitman: a study in the evolution of personality.
In 1933, Smuts became Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice under Hertzog. Their coalition led to the formation of the United Party in 1934. In 1939, Hertzog and Smuts differed over the war issue and on Hertzog’s defeat in parliament on the motion to remain neutral during the war, Smuts took over as Premier.
The decision to enter World War Two (WW2) on the side of Britain alienated many of the Afrikaans-speaking people from his government. Smuts contributed to the policy-making decisions of the Allied forces and was promoted to field marshal of the British Army in 1941.
During World War Two (WW2), inspired by the Native Representative Council, the African National Congress (ANC), the Transvaal Indian Council and other organisations, non-White races became increasingly dissatisfied with their political impotence and economic backwardness. To look into these grievances, Smuts established the Fagan Commission after the war in August 1946, to investigate laws relating to urban Blacks, pass laws, and the socio-economic circumstances of migrant workers.
Smuts, on behalf of the United Party, accepted the third suggested policy of the commission, namely that of acceptance of the fact that Whites and the other races existed side by side in South Africa and that legislation and administration would have to take into account the differences between them. This commission, and Smuts with them, in effect considered the policy of apartheid or total segregation altogether impractical. In Smuts’ own words:
“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.”
In the meantime, the Herenigde National Party appointed the Sauer Commission to formulate guidelines for a future policy towards other races. The Sauer Commission, fearing that a policy steering a middle course between equalisation and apartheid would lead to integration, advocated the policy of apartheid.
The general election of May 1948, won by the Herenigde National Party largely supported by the Afrikaner community, decided the future policy of South Africa for the next fifty years. After the election Smuts resigned and Dr. D.F. Malan took over the government.
Jan Smuts died on his farm Doornkloof, near Irene close to Pretoria, on 11 September 1950, after suffering a coronary thrombosis and several heart attacks.
Smuts received throughout his career a large number of decorations, honours and awards. His house at Doornkloof is preserved as a museum, while his birthplace was declared a historical monument in 1955. Smuts has also been honoured with statues including one in Durban, Cape Town and in Westminster, London.
In 2004, Smuts was listed by voters in an opinion poll held by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) as sixth of the top hundred Greatest South Africans of all time.