Biographies of Famous South Africans
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Those who have expanded our horizons.
The stuff of legends.

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Jan Christian Smuts
24 May 1870 - 11 September 1950

Jan Christiaan SmutsJan Christian Smuts holds the unique distinction of being the only individual to sign both peace settlements reached after the First and Second World Wars. Of Afrikaner roots (Smuts was born in Malmesbury, Cape Colony), Smuts fought in the Second Boer War of 1899-1902 against the British.

Notwithstanding this, Smuts' argued for South Africa's place within the British Empire and worked with the British through both world wars, occupying senior positions in each.

Like hundreds of other Boer children, it was not until the age of 12 that he was sent to school, although he had received some teaching from his mother.
In 1886 Smuts went to Victoria College in Stellenbosch, forerunner of the present University. After a brilliant career at Stellenbosch, Smuts went to Cambridge, 1891, where he read for the Bar, and where he wrote a book, never published, on the work and poetry of Walt Whitman. In 1895 he returned to South Africa and began a practice in 1896 in Johannesburg. His ability brought him to the notice of President Kruger, who appointed him State Attorney in 1898.

During the Boer War he served as a commander in the field, demonstrating a particular talent for guerrilla warfare. His historic raid far into the Cape Colony carried him close to Malmesbury and within sight of Table Mountain. The end of the war found him in the field.

It was during the Boer War that Smuts became acquainted with Louis Botha, forming a close friendship that lasted until the latter's death in 1919. As Cabinet Minister his personality soon brought him into prominence. He enjoyed the close friendship of General Louis Botha but was regarded as being the more reserved and intellectual. A ruthless streak [sic] in him was shown in the way he handled the struggle waged by the Indian community, led by Mahatma Gandhi, even though it was his personal decision to eventually set Ghandi free.

Upon the establishment of Union, Smuts became Minister of Defence, Mines and the Interior and created the Union Defence Force. He ruthlessly put down a civil rebellion against the decision to ally with Britain by a section of the Afrikaner population. For what was regarded as high-handed action, he incurred much odium.

With the declaration of war, he offered immediate military assistance to Britain. The day to day military command of the invasion of German Southwest Africa (Namibia) in July 1915 was handed to Smuts. Curiously, despite the German guerrilla leader von Lettow-Vorbeck's success in continually evading Smuts, his success in capturing large tracts of land, and especially the German South-western capital of Dar-es-Salaam, brought Smuts great credit in Britain.

Arriving in Britain in March 1917 as head of the South African delegation to the Imperial War Conference, Smuts was feted by an admiring Lloyd George, who offered him a place in the War Cabinet.

He joined the War Cabinet, became a Privy Councillor and was largely responsible, in 1918, for the establishment of the Royal Air Force (formerly the Royal Flying Corps, but now an independent section of the armed forces in its own right).

At the Paris Peace Conference, representing South Africa, Smuts argued for reconciliation with the defeated Germany, although he did agree the case for German reparations.

Israeli town named after Jan SmutsA major proponent of the League of Nations (and so, despite his reservations about growing U.S. worldwide influence, an ally of President Wilson), Smuts argued that Germany's overseas possessions - removed from her by the Treaty of Versailles - should be managed by League of Nations' 'mandates'.

With Louis Botha's death in 1919 Smuts became Prime Minister of the South African Union until 1924.

Outside of politics he wrote an important philosophical work, "Holism and Evolution", in 1926. In 1930 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society and the following year Rector of St Andrew's University.

During the Gold Standard Crisis of 1933 he was appointed as Deputy Prime Minister until 1939. Smuts condemned the Nazi-inspired Greyshirt movement, and was a great supporter of Zionism. So much so that Ramat Yochanan, a Jewish settlement in Palestine, was named in honour of him in 1937. Upon the outbreak of World War II he again became Prime Minister. As intimate collaborator of Winston Churchill and others, his role in this struggle was almost greater than during World War I. Smuts became a Field Marshal of the Allied Forces in September 1941. Following the Second World War, his major achievement was drafting the Covenant of the United Nations.

Smuts lost the 1948 South African general election, dying two years later on 11 September 1950. The election of 1948 signalled the start of South Africa's slide into Apartheid and the end of a more enlightened era.


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Postal address: P.O. Box 36
                       South Africa

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