31 Government Of The Union
From Part 4 of Grey Steel by H.C. Armstrong

Botha and Smuts, as they had been the rulers of the Transvaal, were now the rulers of all South Africa united.

Union seemed an assured success. All through the country the people rejoiced. The Dutch parties of the old colonies, Het Volk of the Transvaal, the Orangia Unie of the Free State, the Bond of the Cape, and the majority of the Dutch of Natal, dissolved their old organisations and united into one party— the South African Party—and made Botha and Smuts their leaders. The Opposition was small, only enough to act as a critical audience. All through South Africa there seemed to be a new spirit of tolerance. Dutchmen from one province were kindly towards Dutchmen from another province. Dutchmen and Englishmen met on the best of terms: on better terms than they had met for half a century. The ancient rivalries, the Jameson Raid, the war, seemed to have been forgotten. All thought that a new era had begun, that a new nation had been created; that they were marching together to greatness and prosperity.

Botha and Smuts had their hands full of work. They had to create the machinery for the new organisation as well as to carry on the day-to-day business of ruling and of legislating for the future.

The two men had grown used to each other's ways. Smuts was the professional politician, whose absorbing interest and whose trade was politics. Botha was the country squire gone to politics, who because of his qualities had been accepted without question as the leader.

Botha had little education or culture, but a breadth of vision, together with common sense and a balanced judgment and "a natural tact due to an innate sympathy for men, so that he understood them and summed them up quickly and correctly...He did not analyse men, but he had an instinctive knowledge of character and motive." Smuts had the hardness and brilliance of steel. He had a great knowledge of the facts of law and history, a memory well stored and always as ready as a good card index. The one man supplemented the deficiencies of the other. As time went on the one rarely acted without consulting the other.

Most of the work came on to Smuts' shoulders. Botha went to London to an Imperial Conference. Smuts, in addition to his own three posts, acted also for Botha. When he returned, Botha was often very unwell. Brought up and living in the open on his farm, on horseback from dawn to sunset, he found that the closeness and inaction of an office quickly ruined his digestion. He suffered from colitis. Travelling on boats, eating haphazardly in country inns or in hotels in England, did not suit him. He was poisoned by some bad food—ptomaine poisoning—and took months to throw off the effects. Smuts, the pasty-faced, weakly lad of Riebeek West, had, on the other hand, grown into a strong man. Office life suited him. Though often liverish, he was always in tremendous health and he had the bustling arrogance of the very healthy. He took on all duties on which he could lay his hands. In an incredibly short time he had the new machinery of government ready and working.

Like every Dutchman, he had deep down in him the instinct to own land, and he bought a piece at Irene—the place close outside Pretoria to which he had marched with a few hundred burghers to oppose Lord Roberts' advance in 1900. In the bare, empty, rolling veld between Johannesburg and Pretoria it was a little oasis, where there was a stream of water and some mimosa and willow trees. He bought an old tin-roofed bungalow, erected it on his land and moved in with his wife and five children, planted a garden, and began to make a farm. His father had been ill and was bed-ridden; so he went often to Riebeek West to see the old man, but the rest of his spare time he spent at Irene—and he did not encourage guests.

But hard on the heels of the original optimism of the people there came reaction. Each province had made great sacrifices for Union; they now asked what they had gained: the taxes were no less; the expenses of government had not been reduced; the railways might run more cheaply, but many of the railway-men had been thrown out of work. Each province wanted to know why it did not get a larger share of money. Between them the old rivalries broke out again like half-healed wounds which had been torn open and were more painful and angry than before, because they had been half healed. The other three provinces were suspicious of the Transvaal: they suspected that the Transvaal meant to dominate; already Botha was Premier, Smuts had three posts, and Hull, the Treasurer, was from Johannesburg.

From every side there came criticism: that the Government did little; that it had no united or constructive policy, but was pulled in different ways and so was impotent, which was not unnatural, since it consisted of men with little in common. Hull, the Treasurer, quarrelled with another cabinet minister and resigned, and Smuts gave up two posts and became Minister of Finance but kept Defence. Members in the House protested: it was folly, they said, to combine a spending department with the Treasury; Smuts had never shown any financial ability; he had no experience of business; the financial houses distrusted and disliked him. They repeated their demand to know why he had spent the reserves in the Transvaal treasury on gifts to his supporters and on buildings in Pretoria. They maintained that the money was the property of the whole Union. They refused to pass some of Smuts' financial proposals; but the Government, though defeated, ignored defeat and carried on.

The pressure of the work which Smuts had undertaken was enormous. At first he rushed at it and revelled in it. He drove his staff without pity. He had even less pity on himself. Every morning he was early at work in his office. In the afternoons, evenings, and often late into the night while Parliament sat, he was in his place in the House. He rarely left his seat. He had meals in the House and talked politics while he ate. If he did go out it was to consult or advise someone or to verify a reference from documents. In a difficulty he might walk up and down in the Lobby, his head thrust forward, his eyes on the floor, ignoring anyone there, refusing to be interrupted, thinking out a solution.

His enemies, the Labour Members, together with those who represented the financial and mining interests and the Dutch Church, kept at him, holding him up with questions, nagging at him, asking for information which often it was clear they did not really need. Their opposition irritated him. That, in order to embarrass him, they deliberately wasted his time—" his precious time "—and held up the work of the Government made him seethe with anger. Often he refused to answer or to supply the information which they demanded. When they persisted, he pretended to read the papers on the desk in front of him, or he sat and glared at his opponents across the House, his blue eyes angry and resentful.

He became arrogant once more. More than once when Members demanded a discussion on some subject, he shrugged his shoulders, and though they protested and shouted at him he ignored them. Members even of his own party criticised his autocratic ways, and it became a stock joke to describe South Africa as "a democracy—but with apologies to Jan Smuts."

He resented criticism, and often showed it. Sometimes he would accept amendments to his bills, but more often he would not give way even on the smallest detail. He would not compromise and come to terms, and, as he would not unbend, his opponents grew more obstinate and stiff-necked. Then Smuts would fight, his chin set and pushed out, steadily contesting every point, on into the small hours of the morning, and get his way by sheer persistency and the physical ability to wear his opponents down. Strong and tough as he was, yet it told on him. Often his face was drawn and weary, and there were heavy circles under his eyes.

He continued to make enemies. With casual acquaintances he was reserved and off-hand. He could, when he wished, be the most charming and courteous of companions, but it was impossible beforehand to tell what line he would take. Without any warning or apparent reason he might at a social function or a dinner ignore an important man beside him and open himself out to some youth or young woman. More often he was charming because he needed something—a vote, support, some information. When this was so, he could never conceal his motive and once he had what he wanted, he retreated into himself and his companion ceased to exist for him.

Experience did not teach him the wisdom of handling deputations with patience. They might come from long distances and their members in their own areas be men of importance, used to respect, and they went in to Smuts expecting to be heard with deference. He would treat them with impatient brusqueness so that they would come out ruffled and angry. Smuts' secretaries, however, had grown wise, and one would wait outside in the passage, and, if the deputation was clearly annoyed, would hurry into Botha's office and beg him to see them, and Botha would put them at their ease and send them away contented.

On one occasion a water board from a distant district, led by its president, came to see Smuts.

"Must I see them? asked Smuts when his secretary told him. He was reading papers at his desk. Papers he loved. A deputation of human beings was an interruption, and an intrusion.

The deputation was shown in—old, grey-bearded, grave Dutchmen from the veld: men with much dignity and conscious of their own importance. Smuts met them half-across his room so that he did not have to ask them to sit down. "Will you go down the passage? It is the fourth door on the right. Mr. X. will deal with your case," he said, as he shook hands with them and showed them through the door all in one hustle.

The deputation came out boiling with anger, their dignity hurt. The secretary was waiting outside and ushered them tactfully in to Botha, who greeted them genially and gave them chairs. "Sit down, sit down," and he drew up a seat specially for the president. "Come, fill up your pipes and let us hear what is toward"; and he talked and listened, so that each member of the deputation got the impression that he was the only man in the world Botha wanted to consult.

They left the offices saying: "Man! Who told us to see that Smuts? We will never go near him again. But Botha! Now, that is a man."

Smuts did not understand the value of personal contacts. Often when Botha had been sitting on his stoep talking, Smuts would upbraid him, as he had upbraided Kruger, for wasting his time with people of no importance, saying that a letter would have been sufficient. But a letter would not have been sufficient, and Botha knew that, and Smuts did not.

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