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Smuts Symposium

25 May 2020

Department of History, University of Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch Campus, Wilcocks Building, 3rd floor

The same week as the 'Africa and Second World War ' conference, the University of Stellenbosch is hosting a symposium to commemorate, the 150th anniversary of the birth of Jan Smuts, South Africa's wartime prime minister.

Born near Malmesbury in the Cape Colony on 24 May 1870, Jan Christian Smuts came from a highly respected and prosperous Afrikaner family which valued their rich heritage and traditional ways of life. No one could have predicted that this bright, pious and shy young man would become one of South Africa’s most prominent and controversial public figures. He witnessed first-hand the immense economic and societal pressures the ‘mineral revolution’ brought to South Africa in the latter part of the 19th century; forces which threatened to destroy those values so prized by his fellow Afrikaners. He fought against the colossus of the British Empire in the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) to protect those same values and freedoms. Determined to restore unity within the fractious Afrikaner community after the Peace of Vereeniging in 1902, Smuts was a moderniser who worked ceaselessly to uplift all white South Africans. The tragedy was however that he also helped lay the fatal blueprints for racial segregation within the troubled dominion after 1910.

His stature as a politician and statesman grew as South Africa’s participation in the Great War (1914-1918), and the peace that followed, allowed him to take centre stage as an imperial statesman. Indeed, the respect with which British and empire politicians, military commanders and the political elites ascribed to him during and after the war was indeed phenomenal. This stood in stark contrast to the growing distrust and utter contempt many of his fellow South Africans from across the racial divide began to develop as he tried to steer a middle passage between the two competing European populations; while at the same time restrain the demands for greater economic and political freedoms of the burgeoning non-European communities. His disdain for the small-minded pettiness of domestic politics was juxtaposed sharply with the grander international issues which he savoured before being defeated in the 1924 general election. The remainder of the inter-war period was a seemingly fallow period for him, but the onslaught of the Second World War quickly elevated him once again to the challenges of global conflict and post-war reconstruction.

This one-day symposium explores the many facets of Jan Smuts, his life, his politics, his thoughts, his demons, his accomplishments, and his defeats. It will explore the multi-faceted and deeply complex man through a variety of roles: politician, military commander, imperial statesman, philosopher, and intellectual.

Entry is free, but as the venue is small it is essential to reserve a place. Please contact Ian van der Waag ( if you'd like to attend.

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