A colossus against global evil – the Nazis – how would South Africa’s WWII leader have shone today against a global disease – Covid-19?
By Philip Weyers, great-grandson of General Jan Smuts.
A few days ago, “Lay of the Land” Editor, Dave Kaplan, posed to me what I thought to be an interesting question:
“How would a Jan Smuts’ government have dealt with the Corona crisis?”
Before being a Soldier-Statesman, my grandfather was a brilliant scholar. While one of his tutors, Professor Frederic William Maitland – regarded as the modern father of English legal history – said of Smuts “the most brilliant student” he had ever met, Lord Todd, the Master of Christ’s College, said that “in 500 years of the College’s history, of all its members, past and present, three had been truly outstanding – John Milton, Charles Darwin and Jan Smuts.”
While offered by his old Cambridge college, Christ’s College, a fellowship in Law, he declined, choosing instead to return to the Cape Colony, determined to make his future there. He sure did!
Apart from leading his country inspirationally through WWII, Smuts contributed substantially to the creation of both the League of Nations and the United Nations – writing the preface to the U.N. Charter. Participating in so many milestone happenings of the 20th century, it should come as little surprise that the only person to have signed the charters of both the League of Nations and the United Nations was General Jan Christiaan Smuts. Sadly, Smuts’ United Party lost the election in 1948 to the Nationalist Party of D.F. Malan that introduced Apartheid – system of institutionalised racial segregation – that existed to the early 1990s.
Of course with Smuts gone for nearly 70 years any attempt to answer the question relating to Corona would be purely speculative and based on our understanding of his personality and how in the past he confronted monumental challenges.
I do however believe we have sufficient evidence to create at least some credible scenarios.
Covid-19 made its presence known with people dying in droves in Wuhan, China, subsequently high percentage of deaths followed in Italy, Spain, the UK and the USA where New York City has been the worst hit.
The South African Government did react relatively swiftly applying lockdown measures with individual movement restricted to medical reasons and the purchase of essential items. Socialising of any nature was forbidden. Initially there was understanding and compliance from the vast majority of the urban population, but in the informal settlements, life continued much as usual. It is important to note that the initial lockdown included prohibitions on the sale or purchase of inter alia cars, clothing, hardware, children’s toys, stationery including puzzles and of course the two “sin” items – alcohol and tobacco products.
It is reasonable to believe that Jan Smuts would have reacted in much the same manner initially; he would have been attempting by best means possible to combat what was for the entire world – a complete unknown. It is also fair to believe that Smuts would have permitted a larger component of the South African economy to remain active than was the case, under conditions to minimise the transmission of the disease.
After nearly five weeks of what was advised to be “Stage-5” of the lockdown, President Ramaphosa advised that their efforts had been successful in slowing down the spread of Covid-19 and that there was to be a move to “Stage-4” on 1 May. Perplexing the public – some amusingly others irritatingly – the sale of alcohol remained illegal, while tobacco products could again be purchased. Much joy and relief followed this announcement, not least of all the11 million South Africans who smoke!
Those who were missing a drink resorted either to the highly active and exorbitant black-market or started brewing their own mampoer – South Africa’s highly intoxicating “moonshine” derived mainly from pineapple. Within days of President Ramaphosa announcing a relaxation of the sale of tobacco products, it was announced by Nkosana Dhlamini-Zuma, Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, that the matter had been re-assessed and the tobacco would remain embargoed, resulting in astonishment and much anger amongst the population.
It is at this point I believe that Jan Smuts’ path would have taken a significantly divergent course to that adopted by the South African Government, and in a number of ways.
The Great Communicator
Jan Smuts was an accomplished communicator, and believed in the value of accurate, comprehensive, and regular communications. He was a prodigious correspondent and a highly accomplished writer – in longhand – of his own speeches. It would be inconceivable that at a time of such perceived threat and uncertainty, he would not regularly appear on all media platforms, placating and reassuring the population, certainly he would not have been silent for weeks at a stretch.
We can see today from Smuts’ many speeches how his voice resonated with his audience and how he instilled confidence. This is precisely what is needed today and is surely lacking!
Furthermore, it would be inconceivable to believe that a Smuts Government would not have consulted every credible source of expertise covering such essential aspects as the economy, medical (in particular epidemiologists both locally and abroad), commerce and business and modelled the regulations imposed according to guidelines that he would have gleaned from such consultations. A balance between all critical elements would have been achieved as far as possible.
Smuts would have realised from the start that trying to legislate a population into compliance, would have produced at best short-term results. He would not have been autocratic, aggressive nor condescending when dealing with the people. He would have been well aware that compliance would result from cooperation rather than legislation, particularly when the regulations would seem – with some justification – to be nonsensical and of little tangible value.
To achieve public compliance would invariably have involved law-enforcement but certainly no heavy-handed and unnecessary force. Violent enforcement would not have been tolerated – particularly of petty contraventions.
There can be no doubt that following the initial lockdown and greater scientific data became available offering the wisest counsel to this “mystery disease”, Smuts would have moved swiftly to get the economy back on track. It would have been clear to Smuts that without revenue, a government is restricted in its ability to control or treat the virus.
Disrespect To Disregard
Essential to gaining the people’s support and compliance is to return their lives to as normal a situation as possible. Smuts would realise that a population will only adhere to regulations while they present at least some logic and make sense even at an unsophisticated level. Nonsensical and seemingly irrelevant restrictions would enjoy a short period of compliance before the public at large despaired and disregarded them. The extended restrictions on clothing, for one, were apparently devoid of logic and benefit.
One could buy a long-sleeved shirt, but not a short-sleeved one! Ladies could buy “winter” shoes but not shoes with open toes!
Smuts would not have countenanced such nonsensical regulations believing them rather to further aggravate an already incensed population.
One can of course hypothesize almost without end how the ‘soldier-statesman’ Smuts would have mounted a campaign to counter Corona. In truth, we could never really know. I sense that a Smuts Government would not have acted very differently to the Ramaphosa government in the initial four-week period, but beyond that period, there would have been a marked divergence.
Therefore I feel confident to surmise, that under a Smuts leadership, South Africans would be in far better position than that in which we currently find ourselves.
About The Writer
Philip Weyers is Past Executive Director of General Smuts Foundation. An “Amateur historian” on Jan Smuts, the South African Air Force and the Royal Air Force, Weyers is President Emeritus of the South African Air Force Association. He is currently a member of SAAFA NEC; SAAF/SAAFA Liaison, Foreign Relations. As a “Friend of Israel” and like the “Oubaas”, a confirmed Christian Zionist, he addresses audiences in Israel and England.