An enduring ‘Birthday Tribute’

In modern South Africa, very few official traditions or accolades to personalities linked to our Imperialist past endure – but there are exceptions, one such figure that has endured is that of Jan Christiaan Smuts.

Other than Jan Smuts and Louis Botha as South African heads of state, just about every other ‘white’ historic leader from South Africa’s Imperialist and Colonial epoch has been scolded, removed, defaced and villainized by the ANC government and its cabal – Jan van Riebeeck, President Paul Kruger, Prime Minister Cecil Rhodes, President Marthinus Steyn, Prime Minister Barry Hertzog – the list under each of them is almost endless, and we are not even getting to the proponents of the Apartheid era, Prime Ministers Malan, Verwoerd onwards – as they are simply irreconcilable – on just about anyone’s terms in our modern epoch.

Jan Smuts is still however honoured by our ANC led government and our defence force, he manages to still stand above – and not just recognised by official organs of the South African state, but also by governments, associations, orders, corporations, societies and foundations all over South Africa and even worldwide – still to this day. Surprising considering the weight of critique and scorn sometimes levelled at him by misinformed and inconsiderable zealots – far left and far right of the political spectrum.

Nothing demonstrates this better than his annual birthday tribute, when the newly re-designated South African National Defence Force – General Jan Smuts Regiment joined hands with The Memorable Order of Tins and other military veteran associations – the South African Air Force Association, the South African Legion and more – in a time-honoured military ‘toast’ to the ‘Oubaas’ on the occasion of his birthday.

Images: Jan Smuts’ humble beginnings, the house he grew up in Riebeeck West, Western Cape (near Malmesbury).

In August 2019 the South African National Defence Force’s Reserve Forces units had their names changed to reflect diversity in our shared military history, the old Regiment Westelike Provincie was re-designated as the General Jan Smuts Regiment in honour of its Colonel-in-Chief, Smuts served in this capacity until his death in 1950.

Smuts served in the South African War (1899-1902) a.k.a. The Boer War as a Republican Boer General and again in World War 1 (1814-1918) as a General in the Union of South Africa Defence Force, he served again in World War 2 (1939-1945) and was promoted to the highest Commonwealth rank of Field Marshal in 1941, however he preferred to be referenced as simply “General”. The General Jan Smuts Regiment has honoured his preference as to rank accolades. Other SANDF Regiments that still carry Boer Republican General honours after the 2019 re-naming include The General Louis Botha Regiment and The General de la Rey Regiment.

Annual ‘Birthday’ parades on the occasion of Jan Smuts birthday have been running since his death in 1950, and today his birthday is celebrated at his birthplace in Riebeeck West (his father’s rudimentary cottage now preserved as a museum at the PPC Cement plant) in the Western Cape and at his rudimentary ‘iron sheet’ house in Irene near Pretoria (also a designated museum).

Images: Jan Smuts’ birthday parade at Smuts House in Irene, in Gauteng, near Pretoria.

Smuts’ Birthday Parade at his birth-place is particularly special. The General Jan Smuts Regiment (previously Regiment Westelike Province) in conjunction with PPC Cement and the Memorable Order of Tin Hats host the parade. In a time honoured military tradition, a toast is given, when Smuts died the Regiment’s officers each brought a bottle of brandy for the purpose of a toast – these brandy bottles were blended in a small barrel, this was later topped up with a designated brandy. Every year the ‘R.W.P.’ barrel is tapped for the annual toast and shot glasses filled for honoured guests.

A toast is not merely the lifting of a glass and to drink. Proposing a toast is a revered and honourable occasion.The highest honour that The General Jan Smuts Regiment can bestow on any person is to drink a toast to him or her with traditional R.W.P brandy. This is a once-off occasion, and in recognition and honour of Jan Smuts no lips can pass the glass again, so it is drunk and then smashed in an empty vat.

Images: The toast to Jan Smuts

The Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH), South Africa’s second oldest veterans association, established in 1927 by C .A. Evenden (known as MOTH O) co-ordinates proceedings and invitations, included are representations from The Jan Smuts Regiment and its associations, the Jan Smuts Regiment provides a flag party, honour guard and their military band. The MOTH provide for various veteran associations wreaths and colour/banner party and military veterans on parade – including The South African Air Force Association, the South African Legion (South Africa’s oldest veterans association established by Jan Smuts) and a large variety of other military veteran bodies, civic associations and regiment associations.

What follows is a speech by MOTH Deon van den Berg which is annually read as a tribute to Jan Smuts and it says just about everything you need to know about Smuts and this occasion at his birthplace (posted with sincere thanks to Deon and the MOTH Order):

Tribute to Jan Christiaan Smuts

We are gathered here today to honour the memory of Field Marshal, the Right Honourable, Jan Christiaan Smuts, P.C., O.M., C.H., D.T.D., E.D., K.C., F.R.S. 

Images: Speakers from the MOTH in Tribute of Jan Smuts and MOTH O.

A prominent M.O.T.H. and the Colonel-in-Chief of Regiment Westelike Provincie.  ( Now General Jan Smuts Regiment) In spite of being South Africa’s only Field Marshal, he modestly preferred to be addressed only as General. He held many campaign and other military medals from various countries and was the Freeman of seventeen great cities. Honorary degrees from eighteen famous universities across the Globe were bestowed on him.

He was an honorary member of nine long standing Guilds.  Smuts was appointed as Chancellor of Cambridge University in 1948 when he broke a long line of Dukes and Lords, to be elected as its Chancellor, a position he held until his death in 1950. He is the only foreigner to have held this historic and prestigious position whose first incumbent was elected in 1215.  He was the Chancellor of University of Cape Town and was the second, non-British, Lord Rector of St Andrews University in Scotland.  

In 1970, Lord Todd, Master of Christ College, declared that in the previous 500 years of history of the College, there have been only three truly outstanding students : John Milton, Charles Darwin and Jan Smuts.

Still in his early thirties, he was placed first, with distinction, in the Law Tripos at Cambridge, acclaimed by his tutors and examiners as the finest scholar they ever had. The University immediately offered a professorship.  He declined the offer as he came back to South Africa to participate in the Boer War, fighting against the British.

Albert Einstein counted Smuts as one of approximately ten people all over the world that truly understood his Theory of Relativity.

Yet, when he died, on 11 Sept. 1950 at the age of 80 years, Clement Atlee, Prime Minister of Great Britain, said of him:

“He had the true simplicity of heart that everywhere marks great men for what they are and with his passing a light has gone out in the world of free men.” 

Clement Atlee – British Prime Minister

When we ponder on this man’s life we must conclude that he was a most remarkable man for all seasons (especially during turbulent times), in many countries and across different frontiers. 

He had a subtle and sophisticated mind, was impatient, could not tolerate mediocrity, was immensely hard working, and had no time for the sociability’s that make for popularity.

Hy was ‘n uitstaande student, hoog geagte regsgeleerde, puik administrateur, gerekende soldaat, erkende staatsman, welbekende wetenskaplike en filosoof met sy Holisme en Evolusie teorieë 

Smuts was by twee geleenthede die Eerste Minister van Suid-Afrika en by twee geleenthede die Leier van die Opposisie.

Smuts formed the Union Defence Force in 1912. During World War 1, he was in the field in German South West Africa and thereafter Commander of Allied Field Forces in German East Africa. For the last two years of the war, he joined the Imperial War Cabinet in London under Premier Lloyd George.  The only non-British person ever to achieve this.  This was a sterling and exceptional honour and he served his term in this Cabinet with great distinction.

He successfully organised London’s air defences against the German Zeppelin air raids.  This directly led to the formation of the Royal Air Force in 1918, the oldest air force in the world. The architecture of the Royal Air Force, modelled by Smuts, remains essentially unchanged to this day. He used this experience to form the second oldest air force in the world, the South African Air Force, on 1 April 1920.

After World War 1 Smuts had the vision to start the Electriciteits Voorsienings Kommissie (ESCOM ) and the steel manufacturer ISCOR. 

Image: Field Marshal Jan Smuts

During the Second World War, while he was the Prime Minister of South Africa and the Commander in Chief of the Union Defence Force, he also served as a member of the British War Cabinet, under Winston Churchill. It was during this period that Smuts took charge of the British War Cabinet during Winston Churchill’s absence, effectively being the Prime Minister of Britain and South Africa simultaneously.

On 28 May 1941, Smuts was appointed as a Field Marshall of the British Army, becoming the first South African to hold that rank.

General Smuts was a leading guest at the 1947 wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.

M.O.T.H “O” said:

“General Smuts knew that comradeship and morale were greater than rank.  He sat with kings and conferred with world leaders, and they appreciated him the more because he was the natural companion of privates, and gunners, sappers, and cooks. He spoke their language and joined in their laughter.  Here you saw right through the solemn Statesman, the world–renowned military leader and discovered a man after your own heart. General Smuts made you proud you were a South African without ever resorting to cheap patriotism.”

MOTH C.A. Evenden (EVO)

Images: Accolades and tributes to Jan Smuts in Riebeeck West.

Hy het toegesien dat die Staat pensioen aan weduwees betaal wat mans en seuns verloor het tydens die twee Wêreldoorloë.

Smuts was instrumental in establishing the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations and the author of the wording of the preamble to its charter. He came up with the idea of transforming the British Empire into the British Commonwealth of Nations.

By die vrede van Versailles het hy gewaarsku dat die terme wat opgedwing is aan Duitsland die oorsaak sal wees van nog ‘n wêreld-oorlog. Hy was reg.

After Smuts’ death in 1950  Winston Churchill wrote;

“There must be comfort in the proofs of admiration and gratitude that have been evoked all over the world for a warrior, statesman and philosopher who was probably more fitted to guide struggling and blundering humanity through its suffering and perils than anyone who ever lived in any country during his epoch”

Sir Winston Churchill

Images: SANDF Jan Smuts Regiment on parade in Riebeeck West.

King George VI said;

“In peace or in war his council and his friendship were of inestimable value to my father and to me, while his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race.”

King George VI

Images: South African military veteran associations laying accolades and respect.

Smuts, a kindly, homely family man who loved children and hated showmanship had also a most forceful personality, which never failed to impress – even in the halls of fame anywhere in the world.  He was an exceptional servant of the State.  His life was one of service both in peace and in war.  There was never a hint of self-enrichment, corruption or shirking of difficult decisions.

Be it bright or dim, rain or sunshine, but as the years pass there will always be engraved on the solid rock of time the name of Jan Christiaan Smuts. 

We Salute Him.

Image: The leader element of The General Jan Smuts Regiment – 2023, the OC Lt. Col Lieutenant Colonel. Ndimphiwe Harrison Fikizolo left.

Editors Note: On saluting the Oubass I’ve attended a number of Smuts parade in both of my capacities as Deputy Old Bill of the MOTH Seagull Shellhole, and as a founding President of the The South African Legion. – UK and EU – here in South Africa and in the United Kingdom.

On his Birthday parade in 2023 , I elected to give the ‘Oubass’ the highest officer’s honour by way of saluting with a SANDF officers sword and used my officers sword to do it, the sword was then laid it in honour and thanks on behalf of The South African Legion. I was joined by Lt. Colonel Fikizolo, the Officer Commanding The General Jan Smuts Regiment who was given the primary honour of laying a wreath to Jan Smuts on behalf of the South African National Defence Force.

Written by Peter Dickens, with sincere thanks to The General Jan Smuts Regiment and the Memorable Oder of Tin Hats.

Related Articles

The South African Legion and Legionnaire Jan Smuts Legions and Poppies … and their South African root and Two fellow members of The South African Legion – Churchill and Smuts

The Memorable Order of Tin Hats and MOTH Jan Smuts 3.2.1….You’re IN! MOTH Jan Smuts

Tribute to Smuts on his death “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.

Photo creds and thanks to Karen Dickens and Deon van den Berg.

8 thoughts on “An enduring ‘Birthday Tribute’

  1. A great tribute to the Ou Baas, Peter. Just one little correction. Smuts’s second name has only a single ‘a’. It was Christian not Christiaan as is so often assumed. For proof see his son’s excellent biograpohy of his father “Jan Christian Smuts”. And by way of further confirmation, the name as it appears on the Smuts statue outside parliament in Cape Town also contains just a single ‘a’.
    Though the Smuts name survived the purge that removed so many others after 1994, the ANC were not completely magnanimous: they removed it from the country’s biggest airport!


    • Hi Brian, thanks for that, the definition of Christiaan and Christian depends on whether it’s written in Afrikaans or English. I’ll check it out with his family and foundation. On the airport – the CODESA agreements were that some institutions change their names – both the ANC and the National Party agreed to change the name to “Johannesburg International” as a symbol of neutrality. The ANC later went back on their word and changed Johannesburg International to OR Tambo – but the culprits in doing this initial change was also the NP.


  2. He was a great man; an amazing man and leader. You are right to honour him! Mr. Churchill would be right there with you! Would love to visit there some day.


  3. What an amazing story.
    Having been born and brought up/schooled in South Africa just prior to and during the apartheid era, this part of our history just wasn’t exposed.
    Thank you.


  4. Very interesting article. My father served in North Africa during the 2nd World War. My parents were great admirers of Jan Smut and we had a large framed photo of him in our lounge.
    A really great man that I also admired and still do.


  5. Thanks Peter, very interesting articles on Jan Smuts,
    The Torch Commando and Ossewabrandwag.
    How about an article relating to:
    The Different paths of Three South African Grey College Bloemfontein Matriculates who fought, or had family who fought, in the Anglo Boer War, Served in the Union of South Africa Forces and all had their lives influenced by Jan Smuts in some way.

    Deneys Reitz : (2 April 1882, 19 October 1944)
    Deneys Reitz was a Boer warrior who fought in the Anglo Boer War for the South African Republic against the British Empire. After a period of exile in French Madagascar, where he contracted Malaria, he returned to South Africa, and became a lawyer who founded a major South African law firm. In the First World War he fought for the Union of South Africa against the German Empire, and in the Second World War was an officer in the British Army, commanding several battalions. In later life he was a politician. Deneys Reitz was educated at Grey College Bloemfontein.

    Josef Johannes “Jopie” Fourie (27 August 1879 – 20 December 1914)
    Jopie Fourie was a Boer soldier. A scout and a Dispatch Rider during the Anglo Boer War, he later took part in the Maritz Rebellion of 1914–1915 against General Louis Botha, the then Prime Minister of South Africa, and was executed by firing squad.
    Fourie was educated at Grey College Bloemfontein. As a schoolboy, he served under Piet Roos during the Jameson Raid. During the Anglo Boer War, which began in 1899, he was a scout and a Dispatch Rider and was wounded and captured north of Pretoria during that war.
    By 1914, Fourie had been commissioned into the Active Citizens Force (ACF) as an officer of the Union Defence Force.

    Sidney Robey Leibbrandt (25 January 1913 – 1 August 1966)
    Robey Leibbrandt’s father served in the South African Army and fought in the Anglo Boer War. When World War I broke out he was ordered to invade German Southwest Africa (now Namibia), but could not follow it morally, stating, “Germans should not wage war against Germans.” He received no further military promotions but later worked as a policeman and politician in Pretoria, where he was called Oom John.
    His Son Robey Leibbrandt attended Grey College in Bloemfontein from 1924-1930. As a boxer, he fought at the 1936 Olympics after winning a bronze medal as a light-heavyweight at the 1934 British Empire Games. He turned professional in early 1937 and in July 1937 became South African heavyweight champion. In June 1937 Leibbrant defeated Tiny de Swardt in 13 seconds, considered the shortest fight in South African boxing history. He fought two bouts in 1949, after the war.
    During World War II, Leibbrant worked as a Nazi spy and served in the Germany Army. Leibbrandt formed the Nasionaal Sosialistiese Rebelle, a rebel organization in South Africa. In December 1942 he was captured and arrested in Pretoria, and in March 1943 was sentenced to death for high treason. The sentence was eventually commuted that year to life imprisonment by General Jan Smuts, who knew the Leibbrandt family. In 1948, Daniel Malan, leader of the newly victorious National Party, released Leibbrandt in an amnesty of war criminals. Leibbrandt left the prison and was greeted as a folk hero by many South African people.
    Later in his life Leibbrandt remained politically active, starting the Anti-Kommunistiese Beskermingsfront (Anti-Communist Protection Front) in 1962. He also produced a series of pamphlets entitled Ontwaak Suid-Afrika (Wake up South Africa).


    • Thanks for that. I always find the link of Fourie to Smuts to be more of a political link than a personal link, he’s merely another ‘traitor’ put in front of a firing squad, and in Smuts’ career there are many, why would Fourie be an exception? Smuts was also only the Minister of Defence in WW1, a simple MP like any other, the decision to spare him would have been that of the Prime Minister – Louis Botha or put to the Prime Ministers cabinet for a decision – and not Smuts’ decision alone at all. Jopie Fourie was at the end of the day lucky that he even got a fair trail in a proper Court Martial and did not earn a “Drumhead” (field) court martial and immediate execution, his crime was high treason on a number of levels – in effect, whilst still a Commissioned Officer in the Union Defence Force, wearing a Union Defence Force uniform, opened fire of Union Defence Force Troops, killing a number of his fellow Union Defence Force ‘Afrikaner’ troops (Botha chose to use ex-Boer Kommando and not ex-British Regiment structures to deal with the Rebellion so as to keep the ‘British’ out of it), this was all done whilst Fourie and his rebels approached the Union troops under a “white flag” of truce, a significant flaunt of the rules of engagement – so there is literally no way in 1914, when people where stood up in front of firing squads and shot for simple “AWOL” or “cowardice”, that Fourie was ever going to get off .. and nobody, except Fourie knows why he did it – not resigning his commission etc – which all the other Rebel officers had taken the precaution to do so. So you have to conclude that Fourie himself wanted to make a martyr of himself. The rest is ‘political’ – with Louis Botha prematurely dead, the National Party set their sights on Smuts instead and used Jopie Fourie’s case as a political tool.

      Liked by 2 people

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