Smuts came to Pretoria in grim, in grey determination, ready for work, his whole being yearning for work. He was now the head of the Law Department, responsible for all prosecutions, with some control of the police and the detective service.
He knew there were many abuses, and his experiences in Johannesburg had taught him where reforms were necessary: the illicit buying of gold; the liquor ramp, by which fortunes were being made by selling drink to the natives; the police and the detectives of all grades dishonest and misusing their powers; officials of all sorts being bribed to stultify the laws and to give concessions and special privileges, the rich Uitlanders of Johannesburg doing the bribery. But there were many difficulties in his way.
Pretoria, though it was the capital of the Transvaal and close to the hustling, international, expanding-into-a-city mining-camp of Johannesburg, was still a sleepy country town. In the centre a wagon-square of gravel and earth, dusty and hot in the summer, mud after rain; a bleak Calvinist church of red stone in the middle; and edged by the building of the Volksraad, the Palace of Justice, and offices. Here in the evening the population, the grave conservatives of a Dutch country town, or the even more conservative farmers of the country round, the Government officials, and the elected members of the Volksraad, also mainly grey-bearded farmers, came to sit and talk earnestly. Great respect was shown to age and experience.
At the farther end of the main street, Church Street, was President Kruger's house, a little one-storied house with a tin roof, a stoep back and front with tin roofs also and ugly iron struts to hold them up.
This house was his office and his home. In the one half, in four small rooms with a primitive mud-floored kitchen and pantry attached, rooms decorated with cheap wall-paper, with drab yellow drugget on the floors and oilcloth in the hall, he lived with his second wife and begat some of his sixteen children. In the other half was a long, narrow room for his Executive Council when they met, and three minute rooms as offices.
Here was the centre of the State, for Kruger lived in the middle of his people. He ruled them as some old patriarch, as absolutely and personally as an Arab king in the opening of his tent or Moses among the People of Israel. His door was always open and anyone might come to see him. In the early dawn he rose, prayed, and then sat on a front stoep that was divided from the street only by a low open fence, and smoked his big Dutch pipe— it was a regular joke in Pretoria that "the President's pipe was never cold "—and drank coffee with all who came to see him. Occasionally he sat in the back stoep to warm his old bones in the morning sun. Below him was a yard where his wife kept dairy cows and sold milk to the neighbours, and from here he was able to look out across the plain to the Magliesberg Hills, where they were building the new forts to protect the town, in case the English tried any more raids.
All manner of people came to see him: delegations from distant townships; old grey-bearded farmers; many pastors of the Dutch Reformed Church—for he was very religious— individuals with complaints or requests; foreign representatives; curious visitors; rich men. He saw them all, without distinction of rank, wealth, or position. His government was personal, direct, individual, and he kept everything close between his own two great hands, discussing with his Executive Council—a Council of Elders—but making his own decisions. Neither here nor in the Government offices up in the square was there any office system, card-indexes, letters in files or cases, but all was man to man, haphazard, in that much depended on words spoken and not written, and so liable to misinterpretation and later denial. An Englishman came to see the Secretary of State on a matter of importance. They talked in a room with children romping on the floor: no secretary present and not a word recorded in writing. Another had an urgent subject to discuss. The President talked with him on the front stoep of his howe, breaking off continually to greet or speak with passers-by in the street.
Kruger was himself, by his own lights, honest, as Jacob and Moses in the Bible were honest by their own lights. He was rigidly, gravely religious: the Bible was his only reading and his guide; his God was Jehovah of the Old Testament and his Dutch the Chosen People, and he had been appointed by God to lead them as Moses led the Israelites. As the Israelites despoiled the Egyptians so his Dutchmen should despoil the English and Uitlanders: in that he saw not dishonesty but rather merit.
Round him collected many of his relatives and men looking only to make money. He gave them posts and concessions, which they sold. The rich men of Johannesburg brought money to bribe them and they took it, so that the moral fibre of the Dutch officials was rotted and the Government became dishonest and corrupt—a "Calvinist Tammany," it was called by an American on a visit. Members of the Government and the Volksraad and officials also took up government contracts and made huge profits from them. In all these things Kruger saw no harm.
It was into this that Smuts came, the sleepy, conservative atmosphere with old men in control, the haphazard crude, muddle of a government run by word of mouth and personal contacts and dominated by one old man, the corrupt hangers-on who were increasing in numbers and in greed. He came bustling in to wake up, to reform, and to clean up.
He did no tactful waiting. All his pent-up, clamped-down energy burst out. He set to work at once on his own department—on the police. He ejected Schutte, the head policeman, and then Ferguson, the head of the detective force on the gold-fields, and routed out the worst scoundrels in the Force whom they had failed to check. He brought the detectives directly under his own control ,whereas previously they had been loosely administered by the Chief of Police from Pretoria. To do so, he had to get a Bill passed in the Volksraad and he had to fight it through against big opposition, but he succeeded. He set agents, and agents of the worst type of blackguard, to ferret out the abuses of the liquor and the illicit gold-selling and tried to lay the big racketeers by the heels. He brought in, one after the other, a series of criminal laws with drastic penalties, persuaded the President to back them, and fought each of them through the House. And in doing so he made a host of enemies.
The staid, dignified old Dutch burghers and farmers disliked him as an ill-mannered, graceless young cub. He could not disguise his contempt for the old men: he had no humility before age and no respect for them. He had only an arrogant disdain. He was frequently rude and ill-natured to his seniors. A delegation came to see him. They expected the usual courtesies, coffee, a pleasant talking together, dignified speech. Smuts kept them waiting, hustled them, and dismissed them brusquely. They waited for him outside, followed him when he got into a tram-car, tackled him, and made him apologise. The old men took a relish in getting their own back on him. One day he came to the Volksraad in a grey suit and they promptly sent him home to get into regulation black.
The Hollanders left in the offices looked on him as the leader of the local Dutch, come to turn them out and send them home.
The President's cronies, the bribe-taking crowd of officials, and the members of the Volksraad were enraged that this uppish young barrister from the Cape to whom the President had taken a liking should dare to come butting in to touch their vested interests.
The Uitlanders, seeing him clear up the police and setting his face against bribery, thought that he was going to help them. He listened at first to their grievances with some sympathy—though even to Schreiner he would not admit that the Transvaal Government was not all that was perfect—but the minute they touched on politics, he was their fiercest enemy. They demanded that as they paid taxes they ought to have political rights: as a protest they refused to go on commando or to pay a special tax instead. At once Smuts drafted a law to make them "fight or pay."
Many who had no axe to grind disliked him for his manner. He had developed early, so that his brain was far in advance of his character and of his judgment; and he antagonised men by his contempt of them, his sour looks, and his abrupt ways. A well-known English journalist was talking to the President while Reitz sat listening. Smuts walked in wanting the President and, turning to Reitz, asked audibly, "Who is this fellow who wastes His Honour's time?" He had no knowledge of how to handle men. He still preferred words on paper to direct talk with men, and to see the President talking with everyone irritated him as a needless waste of time.
Often Kruger tried to steady him down, and give him advice on the handling of men, but he also at times grew irritated with Smuts. Smuts would come in with a scheme. Kruger would settle down to consider it carefully and methodically, drawing placidly on his pipe. Smuts would get impatient; try to hustle the old man, who would get rattled and annoyed, so that after Smuts had gone it would take him a couple of hours to cool down and get collected and placid again. "That young man," he said on one occasion to the Executive Council, as they sat in the long room and Smuts went past the window along the stoep, "you must watch him. He will do much, but he must be watched also."
The opposition to Smuts began to concentrate: they were determined to get rid of this jackanapes, but they could not catch him out, for he was honest. In the middle of the corruption he remained untouched. Money meant nothing to him.
But they worked against him. They stood together and covered up so that he could not get to the bottom of the liquor racket or the illicit gold buying, nor stop the bribery. They tried to prejudice Kruger against him, but the old man was very shrewd. He believed in Smuts. He knew of the corruption round him. It was something he had to accept; and he knew that Smuts was honest. Smuts was useful too. He gave him facts, and correct facts, when he needed them; not vague generalities as the others did. He was also that rare thing in Pretoria, a good office-man with a knowledge of English, one who could write excellent letters and dispatches in both English and Dutch. Kruger stood by Smuts and would not listen to his opponents.
The opposition tried to trip Smuts up, but he was not afraid of them. As often with a thin-skinned, shy youth, he had as he grew into a man reacted from his early feeling of inferiority into truculence. He was, moreover, too clever for them. They could not catch him, and they began to call him slim—" crafty"—and henceforth he went by the name of " Slim Jannie."
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