Jan Smuts, one of the most infamous South Africans of the twentieth century remains a controversial figure. Was he one of the outstanding statesmen of his time or was he perhaps a traitor of Afrikaner interests and possibly a racist? Today there are still strong opinions on Smuts’s role.
Like Paul Kruger at the end of the nineteenth century, and Nelson Mandela as the twentieth century drew to a close, it was Jan Smuts who stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries in the first half of the twentieth century; he was a leader of extraordinary stature and his statesmanship is recognised internationally. And yet, the NP and ANC governments have downplayed his contributions for decades, because it did not endorse their Afrikaner and black nationalist versions of South African history. A reappraisal of Smuts will fill a gap in the literature on the history of South Africa in the first half of the twentieth century. Many of the biographies and other works on Smuts appeared during his lifetime or soon after his death. Today, a few generations later, we have a better perspective on his contributions within the historical context of his time. New evidence continues to come to light, making it possible to reach a more informed opinion on questions about Smuts, issues which previously could not be answered conclusively.
The purpose of the book, written almost three generations after his death, is to recall and re-evaluate Smuts’s contributions in various fields and in this way introduce him to the younger generation. It is important that Smuts be judged in the context of his particular time and circumstances. As far as his outlook on war and peace, civilisation, race and class differences, the capitalist system and South Africa’s place in the wider world are concerned, Smuts was certainly a product of his time. It would be unfair to measure him and his contemporaries against today’s norms and values. To do justice to him, his supporters, as well as his opponents and critics, due consideration should be accorded to how they lived, thought and reasoned in that era.
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