Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr was born in Cape Town on 20 March 1894. A delicate and precocious child, he became the special care of his widowed mother, whose strong personality played a dominating part in his life. He was educated first at the South African College School and then at the University of Cape Town. He was an extraordinary student, graduating M.A. at the age of 17. This youthful precocity he carried with him through life, for he was appointed Principal of the University of Witwatersrand at 25, Administrator of the Transvaal at 30 and a cabinet minister at 39.
From Cape Town he went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, where he had a most distinguished academic career, being first in Classical Moderations and first in Greats. In later years he became an Honorary Fellow of his College, Balliol. The influence of Oxford extended his naturally broad sympathies, and gave lustre to that outlook, both human and humane, both erudite and polished, which characterised his noble and all to brief life. On returning from Oxford in 1916 he was appointed to the Chair of Classics at the South African College, Cape Town, and in 1917 he became professor at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
In 1921 he published , in collaboration with Prof. TJ Haarhoff, a pamphlet Studies in Ancient Imperialism which, despite its brevity, is one of the most penetrating analyses of the later Roman empire. When he left the University in 1924 it was to become Administrator of the Transvaal, and when after five years he relinquished the administratorship and went into active politics, it was to become a member of Parliament.
Hofmeyr entered Parliament as a supporter of Smutís South African Party. He was a great parliamentarian and as a debater he was unexcelled. He had a gift for seizing on the weak points of an opponentís case and destroying them without malice. As a minister he faced Parliament with a complete mastery of the facts and a knowledge of the relevant details which made him a most formidable figure to oppose.
He helped to negotiate the coalition of 1933 and the fusion of parties which followed it, thus becoming for the rest of his life a member of the United Party. When the UP split over the war issue in 1939, Hofmeyr followed Smuts and became in that year Minister of Finance and of Education. His abilities were unparalleled, and he soon became the closest advisor to Jan Smuts. He acted as Prime Minister several times during the Second World War, which Smuts was heavily involved in.
Hofmeyr was not always an easy colleague, not because of any natural asperity but as a result of his inflexible adherence to principle. He opposed the removal of the Black franchise in 1936 by Hertzog (a Nationalist), an issue on which the other South African Party ministers were willing to give the incumbent Prime Minister their support. When Hertzog appointed to the Senate a minister (APJ Fourie) as one of the special group nominated as being "acquainted with the reasonable wants and wishes of the Coloured people of South Africa", Hofmeyr felt that the new senator had none of these qualifications and he not only resigned from the Cabinet, but left his party caucus.
His insight into racial issues was captured in a statement he made in 1943:
"... it is not to be desired that he (the African) should merely become an imitation European, cut adrift from his past."
His views on the Indian question more than once severely strained his relationship with his own party. Ultimately Hofmeyr was making a stand for what he conceived to be good and honest government; and more importantly for the principle of non-racial government.
Had he lived not such a brief life, he probably would have extended his prolific talents more into literature. As it was, he only wrote a few major works: History and Control of National Debts (1918), The Open Horizon (1939) and the well-known South Africa, published in the Modern World Series (1931). Honorary degrees were conferred on him by the University of Cape Town (D.Sc), Witwatersrand (LLD) and Oxford (D.C.L.).
Hofmeyr was in the broadest sense a man who stood for liberalism, especially in the sense of recognising human beings as equal, irrespective of race. This, which was his strength to many, was in the eyes of a section of his own party his weakness: they were not willing to go so far, and after the electoral defeat of the United Party in 1948 many of them virtually repudiated him. He was a constant target for the increasingly jingoistic Afrikaans press, which ridiculed his dreams of a non-racial society.
He was a thinker well ahead of his time, and he died as a sadly misunderstood man on 3 December 1948, the fateful year that the oppressive Nationalist Party grabbed power.