John Ruskin, the great Victorian social thinker once said: “I believe the first test of a truly great man is in his humility” and it’s a truism or a trait found in all great leaders, and it is also found in Jan Smuts.
A visit today to the Smuts House Museum in Irene as a guest of Philip Weyers (Jan Smuts’ great grandson) revealed a small personal insight into Jan Smuts, and it reinforces the frugal and humble person Smuts was – a God-fearing man of simple needs.
In the modern context, it also reveals the massive divide between the modern African leaders in Southern Africa with their excessive appetite for hedonism and wealthy trappings from those of yesteryear’s leaders in South Africa.
Jan Smuts’ personal room in the museum has been left almost as is from the day he sat on his bed and keeled over from a heart attack aged 80 – the only thing missing are some small paintings of his children which are in the museum’s trust.
To think, a small wooden single bed and a wooden cabinet taken from a SAAF Lodestar transport aeroplane made up his personal private possessions – in a house that is made completely of corrugated iron (walls and roof) and was a transportable officers mess and military headquarters (with no insulation whatsoever).
But that’s not where Smuts’ frugality stopped, he didn’t even like sleeping in his ‘comfy’ bedroom – no, in summer he preferred to sleep on the ‘stoep’ (Porch) just outside his bedroom on an even smaller iron camp bed, with even less trappings.
He enjoyed the smell of the ‘veld,’ an outdoorsman who saw the greater beauty in the natural South African bush and enjoyed being at ‘whole’ with it, it was also here that he was closest with his God – and it was here, that as an Afrikaner he demonstrated what a true African he was.
Now, compare that to the ‘golden handshakes’ in the millions of Dollars to a recently disposed Zimbabwean African despot so he can live in comfort.
Compare it even to the ‘golden handshakes’ given to the outgoing National Party ministers in 1994 as they ran for the hills with ‘immunity’ cards and set up multi million Rand retirement homes on the Garden Route (the National Party was Smuts’ nemesis – and for good reason).
Compare it even to South Africa’s current political elite who have raided the state coffers and commissioned homes with ‘fire-pools’ and multi-million Rand ‘security’ accommodations, or shuffled taxpayers money overseas to buy multi-million dollar mansions in ‘tax free’ Dubai.
It is fantastic to take perspective and history offers us some wonderful hindsight, and the opportunity to praise from our heroes those attributes attributed to great men – like humility. To read more of Jan Smuts an understand just what a truly remarkable man and South African he was – please visit this Observation Post by clicking the link: “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.
Written and researched by Peter Dickens, photo copyright Karen Dickens – with special thanks to Philip Weyers.