Smuts, Jan Christiaan

1870–1950
Prime Minister of South Africa

Jan Christiaan Smuts spent most of his life trying to unify SOUTH AFRICA, first as a soldier and later as a politician. The son of Afrikaners, South Africans of Dutch ancestry, Smuts lived in Cape Colony before studying law at Cambridge University. After returning to South Africa, he fought on the side of the AFRIKANER REPUBLICS during the South African (Boer) War (1899–1902) against Britain. Following peace negotiations, Smuts helped to unite South Africa—then a self-governing British territory—under largely Afrikaner leadership.

During World War I Smuts fought with British forces that conquered German Southwest Africa (now NAMIBIA). In 1916 he went to England where he held a cabinet post in the government of Prime Minister Balfour. During that time he helped to draft the declaration that proposed founding a Jewish state in Palestine. At the end of the war, he attended the peace conference, where he supported the decision to create a League of Nations.

Smuts, Jan Christiaan

In 1919 Smuts was elected prime minister of South Africa. He tried to strengthen the country’s ties to Britain—a move that many Afrikaners opposed. Smuts was defeated in the elections five years later. He won office again in 1939 and brought South Africa into World War II against the wishes of his political opponents.

Smuts dedicated his career to achieving a peaceful union of British and Afrikaner settlers in a South Africa governed by European principles. Although he did not believe in sharing power with Africans, he opposed the racist APARTHEID policies introduced by the National Party in 1948. (See also World Wars I and II.)