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Portrait of a S. African leader. On the road to apartheid

Jan Christian Smuts: The Conscience of a South African, by Kenneth Ingham. New York: St. Martin's Press. Illustrated. 272 pp. $29.95. At a time when South Africa has become the closest thing we know to a pariah nation, continually condemned by and expelled from international bodies, it is interesting to reflect on the time before the advent of ideological apartheid, when South Africa was a respected member of the international community. In no small part this was because of the esteem felt for its preeminent statesman, General Smuts, who not only represented his country with distinction, but was also able to exert an influence on international public policy out of all proportion to the size and importance of South Africa.

Jan Christian Smuts (1870-1950) was, in fact, a mass of contradictions and surprises. Unschooled until he was almost a teen-ager, he went on to win great academic distinction -- first in South Africa, then at Cambridge University, where he achieved the highest honors in his chosen field of study, law. A freedom fighter leading guerrilla forces against the British Empire in the Boer War of 1899-1902, he became the exponent of rapprochement between English- and Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans and was instrumental in the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910.

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Strongly attached to his Afrikaner roots, he nevertheless became not merely an imperial statesman -- at the highest levels -- but also a gifted philosopher who wrote in English and even contributed the word ``holistic'' (so fashionable these days) to the English language. (The Oxford English Dictionary credits him with coining the word ``holism'' from the Greek ``holos,'' meaning ``whole,'' in his 1926 work ``Holism and Evolution'' -- an unusual distinction for a military man and politician, even one who was a field marshal of the British Army, a fellow of the Royal Society, and president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science!) And how many politicians have ever written a book-length treatise on Walt Whitman, as Smuts did when still in his 20s?

Twice prime minister of South Africa (from 1919 to 1924 and again from 1939 to 1948), Smuts was also a member of the British war Cabinet in the final years of World War I and a close adviser to Winston Churchill throughout World War II. The man who once fought against Britain became chancellor of Cambridge University and has a statue in Parliament Square in London among the greatest of Britons.

Yet, who was the real man behind that questing, birdlike figure so brilliantly evoked in Jacob Epstein's statue? Who was the man whose steely eyes peer forth from the portrait by John Singer Sargent?

We get a useful and insightful picture of the real Smuts in this new study by Kenneth Ingham, a professor of history at the University of Bristol in England. Although not as complete or authoritative as the massive two-volume biography by Sir Keith Hancock (``Smuts: The Sanguine Years'' and ``Smuts: The Field of Force,'' published by Cambridge University Press in the 1960s), this compact volume is strikingly analytical and interpretive. If at times it is lacking in detail and somewhat turgid in style, these flaws are related to Ingham's talent for compressing a great deal of material into a small space.

He has done interesting work with primary sources and made good use of secondary ones. Ingham spends relatively little time on Smuts's private life, but his judgments in this sphere are both sound and subtle.

The salient virtue of this book is the attention it devotes to Smuts's failure to deal with the racial problems which already loomed over South Africa. We see a man who espoused the noblest political ideals of equality, justice, freedom, and national self-determination quite simply turn a blind eye to the aspirations of his black compatriots. We see his shabby treatment of Gandhi, who began his political career in South Africa, and was perhaps the one man on the scene demonstrably Smuts's superior. We see a man blessed with the clearest of analytical minds allow himself to lose power through a series of blunders and evasions of difficult reality -- and lose it to the present rulers of South Africa.

Even in his own time, Smuts endured the humiliation of seeing his administration and policies condemned -- first by the League of Nations, then by the United Nations, both of which he had been instrumental in founding. Indeed, the idea for the League of Nations had been his, but when Woodrow Wilson took it up, Smuts thought it prudential, as he put it, not to contest the US President's paternity! He had also played a key role in shaping the United Nations Charter at San Francisco in 1945. What would he think, one wonders, if he saw South Africa as it is today, an outlaw in the international community?

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It is tempting to think of Smuts's failure to mold his native land according to his great ideals in terms of the lines from his favorite poet, Shelley:

Through the unheeding many he did move,

A splendour among shadows -- a bright blot

Upon this gloomy scene -- a Spirit that strove

For truth, and like the Preacher, found it not.

Only, in Smuts's case, he did know the truth and it is his tragedy -- and South Africa's -- that he was unwilling or unable to make his fellow countrymen see its virtue.

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