Remarkable People

ID #5256

Jan Smuts 5 Union of South Africa.

For all Smuts' exploits as a general and a negotiator, nothing could mask the fact that the Boers had been defeated and humiliated. Lord Milner had full control of all South African affairs, and established an anglophone elite, known as Milner's kindergarten. As an Afrikaner, Smuts was excluded. Defeated but undeterred, he joined other former Transvaal generals to form a political party, Het Volk (The People), to fight for the Afrikaner cause. Louis Botha was elected leader with Smuts his deputy.

When his term of office expired, Milner was replaced as High Commissioner by the more conciliatory Lord Selborne. Smuts saw an opportunity and urged Botha to persuade the Liberals to support Het Volk’s cause. When the Conservative government under Balfour collapsed in December 1905, the decision paid off. Smuts joined Botha in London seeking to negotiate self-government for the Transvaal within British South Africa. Using the thorny political issue of South Asian labourers ('coolies'), they convinced Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman and the cabinet and Parliament.

Through 1906, Smuts worked on a constitution for the Transvaal, and, in 1906, elections were held for the Transvaal parliament. Despite being shy and reserved, Smuts won in the Wonderboom constituency near Pretoria. His victory was one of many, with Het Volk winning by a landslide.  To reward his loyalty and efforts, Smuts was given two cabinet positions by Botha – Colonial and Education Secretary.

Smuts proved to be an effective if unpopular leader. As Education Secretary, he had fights with the Dutch Reformed Church who demanded Calvinist teachings in schools. As Colonial Secretary, he was forced to confront South Asian workers, led by Mohandas Gandhi. Despite Smuts’ unpopularity, the economy continued to boom and Smuts cemented his place as the Afrikaners’ brightest star.

During the years of self-government, no-one could avoid the predominant debate of the day – i.e. South African unification. Ever since the British victory in the war, unification was inevitable, but it was up to South Africans to decide what sort of country would be formed, and how it would be formed. Smuts favoured a unitary state, with power centralized in Pretoria, with English as the only official language and a more inclusive electorate. To impress upon his compatriots his vision, he called a constitutional convention in Durban in October 1908.

There, Smuts was up against a hard-talking Orange River Colony delegation which refused all of Smuts' demands. He had successfully predicted this opposition, and their objections, and tailored his own ambitions appropriately. He allowed compromise on the location of the capital, on the official language, and on suffrage, but refused to budge on the structure of government. As the convention drew into autumn, the Orange leaders began to see compromise as necessary to secure the concessions Smuts had already made. They agreed to Smuts’ draft constitution, which was duly ratified by the South African colonies. Smuts and Botha took the constitution to London where it was passed by Parliament, and signed into law by Edward VII in December 1909. Smuts' dream had been realized.

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Last update: 2014-03-17 02:31
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.3

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