One should not rise to the bait, but the latest little ‘Rhodes must fall’ type story makes it hard. Cambridge University, of which Jan Smuts was once Chancellor, has removed his bust from public display. According to John Shakeshaft, the deputy chairman of the university’s governing council, Smuts has ‘uncomfortable contemporary significance’, as ‘part of the system that led to apartheid’.
No mention that the party that Smuts led was the fierce opponent of the National Party, which introduced apartheid in South Africa. True, Smuts, like virtually every white leader of his generation, did not want full democratic rights for black people in South Africa, but there are other things to be said. That he helped Britain win two world wars, put forward the plan for the League of Nations after the Great War and helped compose the UN Charter after the next, that he was a leading botanist, a great general, and the man who created the Union of South Africa, thus bringing into being the most important country in Africa.
Above all, in this context at least, he is a fascinating study as a white man who fought the colonial power, led his country to independence, yet maintained the value of the British connection. It was partly under Smuts’s influence that the present Queen made her famous promise to the Commonwealth in Cape Town (‘All of my life, whether it be long or short…’) in 1947. I wonder if his detractors have thought about any of this. Whether they have or not, Cambridge should.
This is an extract from Charles Moore’s notes. The full article can be read here.