Book review: Grey Steel

Grey Steel, is an amusing 1939 biography of Jan Smuts, the then Deputy-Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa. Subtitled “A Study in Arrogance,” it caused quite a stir at the time, if only because it handed out bouquets and brickbats with abandon to both sides of the then-political spectrum.
At the time, (white) South African politics had two poles, each championed with near-equal zeal. There were those who were actively pushing racial (meaning Boer and Brit) reconciliation and for a greater international role for South Africa. Then there were those dedicated to parochialism in all its forms.
Leading the broadminded was Jan Christiaan Smuts, leading the narrow-minded was his nemesis, James Barry Hertzog. By 1939, when Hertzog was Prime Minister, the two had been at loggerheads since the talks that had ended the Boer War, 37 years before. Of that event, Armstrong said: “As soon as they had won, Hertzog and his men rushed in to take possession, to grasp power and the prerequisites of power. They had worked and waited twelve years for this… Hertzog took up residence in Groote Schuur. This was the old farm that Cecil Rhodes had had built for himself into a great house and which he had left, when he died, for the use of prime ministers… It was the house of a Great Man and of a Leader of Men. And here came Hertzog to live. There could have been no greater contrast between the builder and the man who dwelt in the house. Hertzog was small, his vision narrow, his mind cramped and provincial. He was no leader, but contracted by ‘craven fears of being great.` A dwarf had come to sit in the seat of the Colossus (Rhodes` nickname).”
How had Hertzog landed there? Smuts had handed him the job in a “flush of supreme arrogance” after he resigned as Prime Minister after his party lost a minor by-election in Wakkerstroom. “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… 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 the air, was thinking of England, Empire, Europe, the World. They threw out the government.”              
Now, 60 years further on, Smuts and Hertzog`s struggle seem irrelevant. To be sure, HC Armstrong – who had a penchant for writing titles that included the word “Grey” – provides some good pen sketches and great quotes, but so what?
Also, in applying modern retro-ethics, it is easy to condemn the book for entirely ignoring black politics and decry both Hertzog and Smuts as bigots from whom we have nothing to learn. But that would be to prove correct Hegel`s maxim that “what experience and history teach is this: that people and governments have never learned anything from history.”
Smuts has much in common with a successor: ex-President Thabo Mbeki. Both liked to think big. Both wanted greatness for their countries – and for themselves. Smuts as much as Mbeki was notoriously thin-skinned and took any criticism as a deeply personal attack. “The English public and the English politicians listened to his advice with bated breath. He told them, not about South Africa, but how to handle the problems of Europe, how to save Germany and Civilisation. He lectured them on how to keep World Peace, how to deal with the Mandate for Palestine and the Jews, and how to settle with Ireland and India. When some politicians reminded him that he had failed to handle the Indians and the natives in South Africa, they were looked at sideways. To doubt the wisdom of Smuts, even to speak lightly about him, became almost akin to blasphemy (to the British.) He left for South Africa firmly established as an Elder Statesman of England,” Armstrong, himself a Briton, wrote.
Elsewhere the biographer notes: “…the creed of Smuts, which welled up out of his very being… was based on a stupendous intellectual arrogance.” Does this sound familiar?
“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 (Louis) 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 around asking each other with a sneer if he claimed leadership by election or by divine right.”                
In the words of a famous Spanish-US philosopher, George Santayana, those that fail to heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. US law Professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds ripostes that the trouble with lessons from history is that they often involve little actual history. Sometimes, the history was never there to begin with. Other times, lessons from history are wrong because nobody bothered to look at the facts.
What can we learn from Smuts? According to Armstrong he was a bad politician and worse general. Yet he coined the term “Commonwealth of Nations” for the British Empire, played a leading role in both causing and ending the Boer War, helped to rebuild the post-war Transvaal and fashion a Union from the four British colonies at the southern tip of Africa. He was a great guerilla leader but a hopeless general – he left a shambles behind him in German East Africa.
He was “clever” in the nasty sense of the word, split hairs, lied to Mohandas Gandhi and others, and played tricks on them. He first loved, then hated Rhodes, detested then respected and collaborated with Lord Alfred Milner, the British overlord. He was loved, he was loathed. But what does he teach us? “Jannie is for South Africa, One and great and free. ‘But,` he says, ‘if you want it so, You must leave it all to me.”
Grey Steel (JC Smuts)
A Study in Arrogance
HC Armstrong
Harmondsworth, England