Jan Christian Smuts, 1870-1950

Publication Year: 1951.



One of the great men of our time was the late General Smuts of South Africa.

He sought rest, relaxation and spiritual uplift in the hills and open spaces of his homeland, often alone, when harassed by the trials and cares of public life. According to his son, he would sometimes put a small pack on his back and go out in the veld or among the hills for days at a time, telling only his private secretary or a member of his family of his intended whereabouts. Even his Cabinet, while he was Prime Minister, did not always know how to reach him in those solitary retreats from a busy life. For many years, and until well into his seventies, he was a familiar figure on Table Mountain, often going up its steep sides by one of the actual climbing routes. He would wander around the summit plateau or sit on a rock overlooking Cape Town in its wonderful setting between mountain and sea, and lose himself in contemplation, both philosophical and practical. He is said to have reached many of his important decisions under such circumstances. That the mountains were a powerful influence on his mind and body as a statesman and as a man there seems little room for doubt.

In 1923, during his first term as Prime Minister, he said in a speech when unveiling a memorial on Table Mountain to the members of the Mountain Club of South Africa who had fallen in the First World War:

The Mountain is not merely something externally sublime. It has a great historic and spiritual meaning for us. It stands for us as the ladder of life. Nay, more, it is the ladder of the soul, and in a curious way the source of religion. From it came the Law, from it came the Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount. We may truly say that the highest religion is the Religion of the Mountain.

What is that religion? When we reach the mountain summits we leave behind us all the things that weigh heavily down below on our body and our spirit. We leave behind all sense of weakness and depression; we feel a new freedom, a great exhilaration, an exaltation of body as well as of the spirit. We feel a great joy…

General Smuts was the only great figure to have attended the peace conferences after both World Wars, at Versailles and at San Francisco. The facts of his long career are too well known to need enumerating here. Leader of his country at war and in peace, a man of great courage and vision, he became recognized and respected as a world statesman. If he was not universally popular at home, it was partly because, in stature, towering above most of his colleagues, he could not always forgive their generally narrower and more provincial or even reactionary points of view. He stood rather aloof from them. He was intolerant of mediocrity and of pettiness. He was probably more influenced by ideas than by men. But he combined as few men in high places have done an idealism and a realism which some of his compatriots could not or would not understand. That he rose to a position of world eminence from a country in which fewer than two million of the inhabitants are sprung from people of European stock is all the more remarkable.

In our Club library hangs a very fine, full-length photograph of the General (he always preferred to be so called rather than by his later title of Field Marshal). He is standing just outside the official residence at Groote Schuur, with Table Mountain rising in the background. At the bottom in his own hand is written: “To my friends in the American Alpine Club, J. C. Smuts, 1948.”

H. S. Hall, Jr.