When Jan Smuts landed in Cape Town, the local newspapers welcomed him back. They spoke of him as a brilliant young man: a credit to South Africa. They quoted his success at Stellenbosch and his phenomenal success in England, at Cambridge and in the Middle Temple; and they predicted a great future for him as a barrister. He was called to the Bar in Cape Town, went into Chambers, and began to practise in the Supreme Court. He was for a while a big splash in the small pool of Cape Town life, and then, as time passed and people grew used to him, he became an unnoticed member of the community — and, despite all that the newspapers had predicted, no briefs of importance came his way.
For a barrister, especially in South Africa, a pleasing personality and an engaging manner were more important in getting clients and briefs than academic and examination successes — and Jan Smuts had a bad manner. He worked as hard as ever, searching out and absorbing knowledge out of books and musty documents, but he could not hob-nob with the other junior counsel, do the casual passing-the-time things they did, playing cards, swapping drinks, sitting in the casual, sociable manner of Cape Town to talk by the hour. He was constitutionally unable to get on to familiar or intimate terms with the other men. He had a hesitating and reserved manner, with a haughty look, and his pale-blue eyes looked past or through people and held them at arm's length, so that the juniors liked him as little as the Cambridge undergraduates. The older men and the solicitors wanted someone more human and pleasant to handle the cases of their clients and one who could influence juries — and this Smuts could never do.
Having little legal work, he undertook odd jobs. For a fee he examined in High Dutch, in which he was very proficient. He wrote articles for the Dutch and the English newspapers, and especially for the Cape Times, on all manner of subjects — on the Native Problem, the Scenery of the Hex Valley, on A Trip to the Transvaal, on Immigration, a review of a book on Plato, a criticism of the Transvaal Government, because it employed Dutchmen from Holland instead of local Dutchmen in its government offices, and he demanded that young South Africans should be given a chance before foreigners; and a study of Walt Whitman, about whom he had written a book, for which he could not find a publisher.
The Cape Times was going through a bad period. The editor had given himself an indefinite holiday. After a time the staff met and elected a temporary editor from amongst themselves — one Black Barry, one of the journalists. Black Barry had been a trainer of fleas in a circus and knew much more about training fleas than editing newspapers, so that the Cape Times became a burlesque of a newspaper and was rapidly going bankrupt when a committee of important men took it over and engaged a number of young men to write for it. Amongst these they engaged Jan Smuts. He worked conscientiously, producing a steady stream of ponderous leaders on such subjects as "The Moral Conception of Existence", and "The Place of Thrift in the Affairs of Life". As part of his work he attended in the Press gallery and reported the parliamentary debates, for Cape Colony had become a self-governing colony and had its own parliament.
At first he did this work as part of the routine of journalism. Then he became mildly interested. His interest increased and grew rapidly until it began to absorb him. All other interests became secondary. His religious convictions had become weaker. The idea of being a pastor had long since faded out of him. The law was his profession, but he had had no success in it. Philosophy and learning appealed to him, but he needed more action and not the life of a student or a professor.
Steadily politics took a grip of him. They became the centre and the co-ordinating force of all his thoughts and all his actions. He had worked hard at school, at Victoria College, at Cambridge, in London, and in his chambers in Cape Town, but without a concentrated central plan. He had been wandering. Now he had concentrated on to one point. He had a definite objective — politics.
At that time politics in South Africa were electric with possibilities. While Jan Smuts had been growing up all had been changing. Away back in 1870, despite its troubles, South Africa had been a sleepy old land, and the people, whether of the Cape or of Natal or of the Dutch Republics, the Transvaal and the Free StateI had been farmers, traders, and shopkeepers-all decent, solid folk. The English and the Dutch had continued to quarrel, but had kept their quarrels as those of relatives. They had stood together against the common enemies, the invading Black Men, to establish their common safety. They had intermarried and worked together and defrauded each other in amicable rivalry. They had disagreed, but lived side by side in disagreement. England had been far away and the English Government had had little interest in the country except in the Cape as a naval base, and it begrudged any money it had to spend on administration. But in 187I diamonds had been discovered in Kimberley; and then in the interior, a thousand miles from the Cape, was found gold: gold in quantities near the surface; reefs of gold in the Witwatersrand, and the Witwatersrand was a bare ridge of hills high up on the veld, in the territory of the Dutch Republic of the Transvaal.
With the finding of gold South Africa changed and woke from sleep into a vicious mood. The gold begat trouble. Instead of the farmers and the traders, all solid, ordinary folk, there came gangs of adventurers from all parts of the world and of all nationalities — Turks, Greeks, many English, Germans and Americans, and the worst type of internationalised Jews, with their noses close down on the gold trail. The Dutch of the Transvaal resented their coming, called them Uitlanders, Outsiders, but they themselves became greedy for quick wealth and their officials became corrupt and dishonest. Foreign governments became interested: the Dutch of Holland; the Germans, who annexed Namaqualand, some four hundred miles to the west on the Atlantic seaboard, and who planned to make themselves a great African empire which should contain the gold area. And the English Government suddenly realised that South Africa was valuable and made up its mind to control its gold. The quarrels of the English and the Dutch ceased to be the squabbles of relations and became a vicious quarrel for wealth, with the English Government behind the local English. The Dutch, convinced that the English Government had decided to annex their republics, though not looking to Holland for help, were equally determined to defend their independence to the bitter end. The leader of the Dutch was Paul Kruger, an old Dutchman and the President of the Transvaal Republic. Amongst the first adventurers had come a young Englishman — by name Cecil Rhodes. He was from a good middle-class English family, but in England he had few opportunities, for the England of 1870 was rigid in its social classes and even more rigid in its distribution of wealth and opportunities, so that a young man without money or family connections had few chances of getting out of the rut in which he was born, however capable or ambitious he might be, and Cecil Rhodes was born with vast ambitions and exceptional capabilities, though with weak health and diseased lungs.
He had come to South Africa for his health and to find a career. At once he had shown a remarkable ability for choosing useful friends, for business and for gambling; and in an in-credibly short time he had amassed a vast fortune out of diamonds and gold and an equally enormous reputation. He had amalgamated the diamond industry into a company, the De Beers, and become the managing director, and he had gained control of a large portion of the gold output of the Transvaal. With this wealth behind him he had gone into politics, with wide views and high aims, and become Prime Minister of the Cape Colony.
His aims were clear-cut and defined. His methods were vigorous and he was held back by no scruples. He believed that South Africa, consisting of the two colonies of the Cape and Natal together with the two Dutch Republics of the Transvaal and the Free State, must remain as one indivisible whole, and that within it, the Dutch and the English should work shoulder to shoulder as one white nation. Such a South Africa should rule itself, free of the government in England and of the politicians in Downing Street, but, above all, free of the officials in the government offices. Beyond this again he saw a tremendous vision, not merely of a united white South Africa, but of all Africa away up far to the north, to Egypt and the Mediterranean coast, as one great state still within the British Empire. Money, -as the means of buying luxury or ease, meant nothing to him, but it meant power. And above all things he loved power, the power to achieve his ambitions and realise his vision.
But in his way, across his path, preventing expansion to the north, preventing a union of South Africa, controlling the gold that Rhodes needed, and in touch with the Germans — thwarting all his schemes, and thwarting them with deliberate and bitter puguacity, was Paul Kruger.
Paul Kruger hated the English. He had been taught to hate them since he was a child. He had been born in the Cape as a British subject, but his father had been one of those who had trekked away north to get away from the control of the English. As a youth he had lived hard. Naturally dour and strict, an extreme Calvinist with a harsh outlook, his life had soured him so that his hatred of the English had become part of his mentality.
Paul Kruger had aims as clear as those of Cecil Rhodes; he was equally unscrupulous and as determined to succeed He too believed in a united South Africa, but one that was wholly Dutch, and he hoped to drive all the English into the sea. Finding that impossible, he set to work to unite the two Dutch republics and to make them into an isolated Dutch country, independent of the English-ruled Cape Colony and Natal, and with its own government, laws, tariffs, customs, and its own separate railway system and its own seaport.
For Rhodes he had a special hatred. As the Englishman who was Prime Minister of the Cape, Rhodes was the agent of the interfering English Government. He hated him also as one of the foreigners, the Uitlanders, the Outsiders, who were profiting from the gold of the Transvaal — of his Transvaal. Aasvogel, dirty vultures, Kruger called them, who had found a dainty morsel in the Transvaal and sat down to gorge themselves. Rhodes was the King of the Aasvogel, with his evil Jewish assistants; his evil friends who made his money for him. He was, for Kruger, the incarnation of Capital, of Evil: of Capital lying, bribing, treacherous, bullying without conscience or moral sanction, using politics to rig the market and then using the money so foully made to debauch politics. Rhodes had already with his bribes debauched many of the officials of the Transvaal. The gold itself was a cancer rotting the heart of the people, and Rhodes and his friends were no more than stinking corruption and a vital danger to the liberty of his state. He could not see Rhodes' virtues, mighty though they were, but only his gigantic vices.
At first Rhodes tried to come to terms with Kruger, to persuade him, to buy him into complaisance — and Rhodes believed that, if offered enough, any man could be bought — but Kruger would neither be cajoled nor bribed, and he drove Rhodes to fury. To Rhodes the President was a dirty, uneducated old Dutchman, backward, primitive, and impossible, an anachronism, a throw-back to the times of Moses, who ought to be cleared away, and who blocked all his great schemes and all progress and advance.
Like two primeval monsters they faced each other. Kruger hard, rugged, a fighter, brutal, dictatorial and overbearing: a fanatic, who ruled his people as a patriarch by the power of his personality. The Old Testament taken literally with its exact wording was his guide. Rhodes, ruthless, unscrupulous, an ourang-outang of a man, unkempt in appearance, uncouth in manner, huge head with sleepy eyes, turbulent and volcanic in his rages, tearing at opposition and tearing it down without pity with great, grasping hands.
At the time that Jan Smuts was reporting the parliamentary debates from the Press gallery in Cape Town and learning the elements of politics, across the hard brutal land of South Africa these two immense, primitive men straddled, squared up, face to face, grim, hostile, and snarling; they dominated all South Africa and their quarrel dwarfed all other issues.