56 Electoral Defeat
From Return To South Africa Part 6 of Grey Steel by H.C. Armstrong

SMUTS had been in politics for twenty-five years. It was now, for the first time, that he was the real ruler of South Africa. He put out his hands for the power for which he had worked so long. He would rule, and rule as he saw fit and in his own way. He towered over his colleagues and those round him. His personality and his brain dominated all, and the rough edges of his character, without Botha to soften them, became rougher and more pronounced. The antagonism to himself did not make him more wary, but only more obstinate to get his own way. He became more dictatorial, until he was called "the steam-roller" and "the Oriental despot," and people went round asking each other with a sneer if he claimed leadership by election or by divine right.

He would stand no opposition. He would have his own way absolutely and in detail. All opposition was to him a personal affront. Those round him must agree with him absolutely or they were against him.

It was the same in small things as in great. Once, when he was camping, he considered that the fire had been built wrongly for the wind. He kicked it out and rebuilt it himself, but so that the wind brought the smoke into the camp. That evening he sat in clouds of eye-stinging wood-smoke, but contented, for he had his way. On another occasion in Pretoria an old Dutchman questioned a statement he had made on philosophy. Smuts looked the old man up and down as if he had been insulted and changed the subject.

He became even more reserved and he relied less and less on other men. He preferred to do things himself. He did not understand team-work. He was a lone man playing a lone hand, and convinced that he could do what he wished better than anyone else could do it for him.

He looked on his colleagues in the Cabinet as encumbrances who had to be endured. He avoided seeing them. "He wanted clerks, not colleagues." Sometimes he did their work and gave orders to their departments without consulting or informing them. He became "more than the head of the Government. He was the Government . . . Cabinet, all departments of State, the Party Committee, the civil services . . . Parliament itself." His colleagues complained, said they found it impossible to see him, but he took no notice until several protested strongly, and even Patrick Duncan, who had been his faithful and complacent admirer and follower for many years, and was the deputy chief of his party, quarrelled with him.

With Botha gone, there appeared a defect in Smuts which had not been obvious before. Botha had always seen "the end in the beginning," and so planned far ahead. Smuts could look far away towards the stars, or conceive great world-movements, but in practical affairs he had no long or constructive policies. As in war so in politics and administration he had the mentality of the raider, not of the general. He dealt with each difficulty in turn, and not as part of a general advance. In front of him he saw a ridge held by the enemy. He drove them off or cleverly outflanked them, and then he looked to see the next difficulty. There was a joke in Pretoria that when Smuts was asked for a general policy he said, " We will begin plan-making," but no plan came; and his distracted colleagues and assistants tore their hair —for he was always busy and would not see them. He was, in fact, avoiding a decision on some big issue.

At times there came creeping back in him, for all his despotic insistence that he was right in all things, doubts, making him hesitate. Before, he had been able to consult with Botha, who gave him confidence. Now he had cut himself off from other advisers, and he trusted little in any man's advice. As ever, he forced the doubts out of his mind, forced himself to know he was right, and, with no one to restrain him, did and said violent things—because of his doubts.

He grew exceedingly unpopular. He rode roughshod over people and made many enemies and did not care what enemies he made. The Upper House of Parliament was full of experienced and older men. Smuts did not conceal the fact that he had no respect for them and that he could rule better if they were out of the way. In the Lower House he sat usually silent and aloof, but when he spoke it was often with a caustic, acid scorn and a cynical sarcasm that made members hate him. He rarely, however, descended to personalities, and of his worst enemies, even of Hertzog and Tielman Roos, who could get under his skin and hurt him, he always spoke well.

His subordinates and the civil servants were nervous of him. He was utterly impatient of slowness and stupidity. He preferred novel rather than tried and tested lines of action and methods. If anyone tried to explain a difficulty, he brushed him aside, looked on him as obstructive, a man to be sent elsewhere or anyway to be ignored. Whatever Smuts wished, must be done at once and without hesitation.

From many sides he was given warning of coming trouble. Members of his own party, especially those from Natal, began to criticise him. He looked on those who were old as dodderers and the others as disloyal to him. Articles in the newspapers said that the feeling of the country was turning against him. His party managers warned him that Hertzog was flirting with Creswell, a retired engineer who led Labour, and that there was some agreement between them. Smuts did not believe them. He would not listen to what he did not want to know.

But trouble was boiling up. The people of South Africa were tired of Smuts. His majority in Parliament began to be reduced. He resented that. There was a by-election at Wakkerstroom. It was a good seat, and he sent his best candidate. Without warning he made a speech saying that he would treat this election as a test. The electors must elect his man or he would himself resign. The electors threw his man out.

Smuts was bitterly resentful at the defeat. He was unwell. The malaria had reduced his vitality. He had broken out in painful carbuncles, which had to be lanced. He was run down and needed a rest. At this defeat he swelled up in indignation, in a flush of supreme arrogance. He still had a working majority. He need not go to an election for eighteen months, but if Wakkerstroom would not obey his orders he would go now. South Africa, he knew, could not do without him. He did not consult his party, his party managers and organisers, nor even his colleagues in the cabinet, but handed in his resignation and then walked in to his colleagues and told them briefly that the Government was at an end.

So little did his supporters know or even suspect, that when the editor of a newspaper in Cape Town got the news he discredited it, but meeting the Treasurer of the party, a man looked on as one of Smuts' few confidants, he asked him. The Treasurer bet him he was wrong. They walked down to the club. A cabinet minister came in. He confirmed the news. The Treasurer paid his bet.

At the news South Africa was up, seething with excitement. Hertzog and Creswell came out into the open. They had made an agreement, a Pact. Hertzog had thrown his principles into the cart. He had agreed not to press for a republic or secession from the British Empire, and Creswell with Labour had agreed not to talk of socialism. Their desire for power and the fruits of power and their hatred of Smuts was stronger than their principles.

The election was a straight fight. Smuts with his own and the English Party against Hertzog with Labour. Smuts made a great fighting speech, full of promises to reduce taxes, to help agriculture, to aid meat and tobacco, to grow more cotton, to assist industry by banking facilities, to build new railway workshops, to give technical education, and to create a new and special office for a cabinet minister to look after all these. He was met only with vicious and positive hatred of himself personally. Mrs. Smuts put aside her dislike of the English and came to his help, touring the country and speaking at women's meetings.

But the voters had had enough of the dictatorship of Smuts and of Smuts' World Issues and European Issues and Imperial Issues. They cared more about their own bread and butter. Hertzog would look after those. Hertzog would look after their interests while Smuts, head in air, was thinking of England, Empire, Europe, the World. They threw out the Government. They threw out Smuts from Pretoria West and put in a Labour candidate of little importance; and Smuts had to be found a safe seat at Standerton. And they sent Hertzog back to represent them with a good majority.

The defeat was the defeat of Smuts personally. At the moment when he had stood straddling supreme, with power between his hands, he had fallen; and he fell through ignorance of handling men and through pride, and because he was as arrogant as a steel blade drawn and held on guard.

« NEXT » « Part 6 » « Grey Steel » « History » « Library » « Home »