“… I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man”

Jan Smuts’ history is well documented but let me share something that is less known about the man himself.

It’s a common misconception that Jan Smuts and Mahatma Gandhi’s relationship was one of animosity. It is a little known fact that both men actually respected each other, remaining life long admirers of one another.

Gandhi tried, at all times, to look for the positive in Smuts and said of him that he had a “high place among the politicians of the British Empire and even of the world”.

Rather famously, when Gandhi finished his work in South Africa and left with his wife in July 1914, just before he departed, he sent General Smuts a gift of a pair of sandals he made himself.

Gandhi had learnt to make sandals at Tolstoy Farm, a cooperative colony he set up near Johannesburg, from which he ran his campaign of satyagraha (non-violence).

Jan Smuts wore the sandals every summer at his farm, next to the town of Irene, and then returned the sandals to Gandhi on Gandhi’s seventieth birthday, remarking:

“I have worn these sandals for many a summer, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man”.

Smuts went on to say:

“It was my fate to be the antagonist of a man for whom, even then, I had the highest respect”.

A replica of the sandals can be found at the Constitution Hill Museum in Johannesburg.  Appropriately and oddly enough a statue of Jan Smuts stands just opposite a statue of Mahatma Gandhi on Parliament Square in London, in recognition of two world visionaries and their impact in the development of the modern political sphere.