He had written the Constitution of the League of Nations (after World War 1), and the Preamble to the United Nations Charter (after World War 2). Winston Churchill once declared that “my faith in him is unbreakable”. Woodrow Wilson admired him “extravagantly”. Albert Einstein said that he was one of the few men who understood the theory of relativity.  He would meet John Maynard Keynes in the evenings, and “we (would) rail against the world”. Nelson Mandela praised his contribution to “promoting freedom throughout the world”. But perhaps the most apt quote comes from Lord Todd, the Master of Christ’s College, Cambridge, who said that in the 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.

Jan Christian Smuts studied at Stellenbosch before he went to Cambridge, he fought in the Second South African War (against the British), in the First World War (in Tanzania, against the Germans), and in the Second World War (in North Africa), he accompanied Churchill to France after the D-Day landings, advised King George V on the Irish rebellion, was twice Prime Minister of South Africa,  Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, and was considered one of the leading experts on South African botany.

I recently read ‘Jan Smuts: A Man of Courage and Vision’ by Antony Lentin. It provides – in less than 200 pages – an insightful overview of the life and times of this extraordinary man. Every page offers a new adventure, like meeting Austrian Finance Minister, Joseph Schumpeter, in Vienna, or, on an early morning stroll in Paris, accidentally meeting Herbert Hoover (future president of the United States). The most fascinating anecdote, however, comes from his Tanzanian campaign against the Germans. The German Kaiser had awarded Smuts’s adversary, General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, an Iron Cross, but it fell into the hands of Smuts. Gallantly, Smuts forwarded the Cross to Von Lettow-Vorbeck with his own congratulations attached. Ten years later, the two would meet again, in London, at a function, and Smuts would toast to his former foe’s good health and mark the event as a sign of reconciliation. When Von Lettow-Vorbeck fell on hard times in his old age, Smuts sent him food parcels and arranged for a pension to be paid to him.

Today, though, Smuts is uncelebrated in South Africa. As much as Madiba is the face of reconciliation at the turn of the 21st century, so Jan Smuts was the face of reconciliation at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1905, Smuts wrote to his arch-enemy, Sir Alfred Milner, that “history writes the word ‘reconciliation’ over all her quarrels”.  What if our children, a century from now, have forgotten the tremendous reconciliatory work of Mandela, much like we have forgotten Smuts? Let’s hope the future will be more kind to our collective memory of South Africa’s great conciliators, a history where Jan Smuts deserves his rightful place alongside Nelson Mandela.