Smuts had come back from England with his head full of plans of South Africa as an independent partner in the mighty British Empire, of South Africa as a member of the world organisation of the League of Nations. He would make South Africa great. He expected South Africans to greet him with thunderous applause and to march boldly down the highway, along which he would guide them to their high destiny.
But during the years he had been away, Smuts had got out of touch with his own people and their ideas. South Africans, Dutch and English alike, had no desire to be made into a great people. The more the world became involved in troubles, the less they wished to be involved in the affairs of the world. They were quite content to concentrate on their own local interests. They had turned in on themselves even more than before, and they were not going to let Jannie Smuts guide, dragoon, or hurry them. They knew their Jannie Smuts. His high-flown speeches left them unmoved.
"I think it is the only real hope of the world," Smuts said, "that the League may acquire such moral authority . . . that the governments of the world, great and small, will listen to the judgment of its Council. . . . The nations have not been true to their word; they have not been faithful to the work of their Dead. . . . Everywhere there is the denial of the human spirit..."
This sort of stuff, they said, was Jannie Smuts' clack and noise, tallcing big. It might be sucked in by the people in England, but they had heard that sort of stuff from Jannie before.
So far from being applauded, Smuts found himself being bitterly attacked.
"This is the way," wrote one newspaper, "by which General Smuts proposes to lead us to greatness: the way of external and internal war of persecution, of treading down the freedom of his fellow men, fellow citizens, and fellow burghers."
Hertzog led the attack. Slowly, heavily as a moving sand-dune and as inevitably, he advanced towards his objects: to destroy Smuts and to become Prime Minister himself. "Socially charming, politically spiteful and obstinate," he was made all the more angry, because Smuts despised his slowness and did not conceal his scorn of him.
Very shrewdly Hertzog used every possible opening. Smuts' protest against the Peace Treaty: that was just a political move by Slim Jannie. Smuts made a speech on Reparations, published an article in the American papers defending President Wilson and the Covenant of the League as "one of the great creative documents of human history," and issued a call to the nations of the world to save Germany and Civilisation before they crashed. Hertzog asked what all this had to do with South Africa, and repeated the same question that Lloyd George had asked: why, if he felt like that, had Smuts advised an increase in reparations and so laid a bigger burden on the Germans?
When Smuts at length and with much heat tried to explain this away, he got no credit.
Smuts talked of the Empire. He went off to London to an Imperial Conference. Hertzog said that he was promising the help of South Africa, if there was another war. Smuts defined his conception of the British Empire as "a grouping of free states held together with a common allegiance . . . by hereditary kingship and frequent conferences." Hertzog said these were empty words: England would always overlie the other members of such a grouping. South Africa wanted a republic.
It is," he said, "the sole object of General Smuts to form a great British Empire. South Africa is too small for him. He wants to stand on a mountain instead of an ant-heap, and to have his feet in two continents."
There were enough troubles in South Africa, said Hertzog, without worrying about those of other countries. There had been a boom during the war: now there was a slump. Trade was depressed: many businesses were going bankrupt. There was little demand for diamonds. The sale of ostrich feathers used to be a thriving trade; it was disappearing. They had suffered the worst drought for fifty years and it had ruined many farmers and thrown many of the labourers out of work. Smuts had done nothing. There were thousands of unemployed. The budget showed deficit on deficit. Taxation had increased, and unnecessary cuts had been made all round. Men were being put off the railways. More natives, because they were cheaper, were being employed in the gold mines, and white men turned away. The pay of the civil servants was being reduced. These were all due to the mismanagement and the incompetence of Smuts, and all he could do was to make fine speeches about Europe. "Smuts," said Hertzog, "has brought South Africa to the verge of ruin," and he called all the discontented to his side with glowing promises; and every cut meant that men who had before backed the government now turned against Smuts and joined Hertzog.
There were other troubles. The spirit of unrest and discontent which filled the world after the Great War had touched South Africa. There were secret organisations and talk of revolution among the white workers. Bolshevik agitators were inciting the white workers to rise and demand their rights and overthrow the capitalists; and they roused the natives also. Seventy thousand natives struck for higher pay on the Rand. There was a similar strike in Port Elizabeth. At a town near Port Elizabeth a strange religious sect collected to wait for the end of the world and refused to disperse and go home. In German South West, now governed by South Africa under a mandate from the League of Nations, a tribe of Hottentots refused to pay their taxes and revolted.
Towards the natives Smuts had the attitude of every South African, Dutch or English. He was hard and without sentiment. The white man was master and would treat the black man well, but the black man was the servant. He would tolerate no resistance. He was utterly ruthless. The natives on the Rand were driven back to work. In Port Elizabeth, where they resisted, sixty-eight were shot. The religious sect was driven home with rifles and machine guns; three hundred were killed and wounded. The revolt in German South West was crushed by aeroplanes bombing the tribe. The League of Nations called for a report, and refused to accept the one presented.
Hertzog was even less sympathetic to natives than Smuts, but he used these events to show how incompetent and violent Smuts had become. "The Prime Minister's footsteps," he trumpeted shrilly in the House, "his footsteps drip with blood," and steadily he collected more and more voters to his side.
All politics in South Africa were exceedingly personal. The personality of the individual leader counted for more than his policy. Botha's principal followers had been the men of his commandos in the South Africa war. Smuts had few personal followers, and these became fewer. As Smuts had said, "I deal with administration. Botha deals with people." Now as Prime Minister he had to deal with people as well as administration, and whereas before his inability to handle men or establish personal contacts had not been so evident, now it stood out glaring and obvious before all.
He made no attempt to change. The one flash of self-revelation after Botha's death had burned out. He had shut himself within his shell once more, and he was the Smuts of the old days and the old ways. . He would allow no one to know that he had any soft spot. On rare occasions, with friends, he could relax a little and become almost boyish, as a schoolmaster might unbend with his older and more privileged scholars, but never so that anyone could have taken a liberty with him, ragged or teased him, or even dared to slap him on the back with a cheery "Hallo, Jannie!" though. he would have given much to be able to relax to that extent and to be popular. "With the thoughts and emotions of the plain, ordinary people he had no contact." He despised the common herd and he "despised the human qualities which are elemental in successful handling of the multitude."
His contact with first-class brains and his dealings with great issues in England made him more impatient now he had to deal with small administrative problems and slow, easy-going subordinates. He was intolerant of men whose brains moved more slowly than his own.
He became very moody. One day a visitor would find him alive, jumping up every few minutes as they talked, making a note or two, full of electric energy, and the next day the visitor would find that he would hardly look up, would glower, or go on reading papers, or gaze at the ceiling or stare through his visitor, or, rather, past him, with his blue eyes unseeing, and he would refuse to say a word. At social functions, such as opening a bazaar, he might be distrait or he might be charming, but even then he was cold and distant; he could not be effusive, or pay the blatant compliments which bazaar-organisers expected and rejoiced in.
He began to age. He was thinner and more lined, and his hair was rapidly going grey. He suffered often from the malaria which he had contracted in German East, but he would not give way to it. He dosed himself, dragged himself to his work, and forced himself to concentrate. After a bad bout of malaria he was often irritable, taciturn and morose, and impossible to approach, and sometimes deeply depressed and very pessimistic.
When talking politics he could rarely rouse, or even interest, his audience. He was prosy, dull, ineffective, carried little conviction, was often verbose with much repetition, and he had neither the brisk wit nor the fire which could catch the spirit of a crowd and make it laugh or jeer. He might be talking from an ox-wagon to an audience in the veld, talking of great things in Afrikaans phrases so well chosen that they were Biblical in their sonorous beauty. He would try to reach down to the minds of those before him and fail, and, finding that they did not understand him, he would become lame in speech and awkward in gesture. Any quick-witted heckler could make him stammer and uncomfortable. If heckled he grew irritated, but he would not argue. He would shrug his shoulders and leave his questioners to think what they liked.
Men had trusted Botha instinctively, and instinctively they doubted Smuts. "He has" wrote Merriman, "a reputation for shiftiness which is perhaps undeserved." In big issues his statements were absolutely reliable, though when cornered by a question he might shoot out a reply in the hope that his questioner would not realise that it was incorrect. Often, and especially when giving an interview to journalists, in describing something he would talk with an air of candour but omit the important points, a Dutch trait which Milner described as "perfectly charming in duplicity, with a manly air of frankness which would disarm any Englishman." People in general looked on him as too clever, and as ordinary men they distrusted him. They believed that he used men for his own purposes and then forgot them. Even his best friends complained that they were never quite sure where they were with him.
As a result, friends and enemies alike read into his smallest misstatement some deep ulterior design. He might say that he had walked to his office when he had ridden there in a car, or that he had seen someone who was away. They would wonder at what he was scheming. Once, when there was a conference, Smuts spoke of the long drought. An old farmer promptly got up and looked out of the window. "Why did you do that?" asked another. "When Jannie Smuts says there is a drought, there will be some catch in it," he replied; "I looked out for the rain."
Hertzog, in contrast, though far the more crafty politician, was trusted because of his lack of cleverness. He thought like the ordinary man, and so the ordinary man understood him and did not suspect his every word and action. His friends and subordinates knew exactly where they were with him: he always stood by them. Everyone knew what were his objects. They were simple and concrete, and his methods obvious.
Early in 1920 the General Elections were due. Smuts met with much opposition. The pastors and the Dutchwomen worked with virulence, raking up every possible story and using every possible electioneering trick against him. He was convinced that he would win with ease, but at times he flashed back in annoyance. He was speaking in his own constituency of Pretoria West when the crowd began to heckle him. "If you people are determined to wallow in the mire of racialism" he snapped at them, "Pretoria West had better begin to look for, another representative and the country for another premier." He never conceived that Pretoria West or South Africa would be so foolish as to take him at his word, and when the results were announced he was staggered. He had got in for Pretoria West, but Hertzog had come back to the House with the strongest party. The Dutch, and with them most of Botha's followers, had left Smuts for Hertzog.
Hertzog claimed to come in, but he would not give up his demand for a republic. There were two other parties, Labour and the English Party, known as the Unionists. They would not accept a republic and stood in with Smuts, but even with them he had only a shifting majority. He could never be sure of it. On one occasion Labour had a motion before the House. Hertzog, the cunning politician, saw his chance. Though it was completely against his political aims, he voted with Labour and all but beat the government.
Such a majority was unworkable. Smuts looked round for an alliance. He tried to come to terms with Hertzog, but that was impossible. He tried the English Party, and they combined with him to maintain the connection with the British Empire and prevent a republic. He promptly went to the country and came back with a working majority.
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