Independence you can trust
24 April 2014 23:51 (South Africa)
South Africa

Legacy Wars Redux: Jan Smuts vs Dullah Omar

  • Kevin Bloom
  • South Africa
Bloom Smuts vs Omar

In a battle for historical legitimacy between former prime minister Jan Smuts and former justice minister Dullah Omar, the latter, in the context of this country’s transformation, should be the out-and-out winner. So why can’t the Omar family play it straight with respect to a proposed road name-change in Cape Town? By KEVIN BLOOM.

Cornel West, professor of African American studies at Princeton University and a prominent figure in the USA’s post-1960s civil rights movement, may be a strange jumping-off point when it comes to a critique of Jan Smuts—especially a critique that’s connected to a battle over the renaming of a road in South Africa—but he fits the bill for one excellent reason: he’s not a South African. 

West’s central thesis on race, the thesis that to be born human is to be born into a life of prejudice, is therefore not compromised by the history or politics that terms like “xenophobia” or “racism” carry in this country. Granted, the United States may have its own complicated claims on these terms, but West is making a larger point—he’s saying that our knowledge of mortality highlights our fears and insecurities, and that the unavoidable impulse is to stick with our own kind.

It’s a simple enough philosophy, yet revelatory when applied to some of West’s more prosaic statements. For instance, this statement from his book Race Matters (published 1994): “Without the presence of black people in America, European-Americans would not be ‘white’—they would be Irish, Italians, Poles, Welsh, and others engaged in class, ethnic, and gender struggles over resources and identity.”   

Turn the clock back 95 years, and the speech of General Jan Smuts at a dinner held in his honour at the Savoy Hotel in London starts to read in a new light. Known as “The White Man’s Task”—even South African History Online gives it this title—the speech was essentially a précis of Smuts’s guiding principles on “native policy,” although its opening passages were dedicated to the relationship between South Africa’s two white tribes.

General Smuts, who had recently formed the South African Defence Force and in two years would become prime minister (after Louis Botha’s death), told the gathered dignitaries that the chief aim of his young country was “national unity”. By that, as was made clear to all, he meant that reconciliation between the Dutch and the English was of paramount importance. If this was not achieved, said Smuts, then the country could not realise its “great transformation of soul”. 

Smuts went on to say that he was looking to the “next generation” to accomplish this transformation, and that it was the very element of difference in the white population that would contribute to the strength of South Africa in the years to come. “All great imperial peoples,” he said, “really are a mixture of various stocks.”

Only then, after reluctantly conceding that at various times the African continent had shown signs of “attempts at civilisation”—by way of example, he mentioned the Saracens of Central Africa, the University of Timbuctoo and the Great Zimbabwe ruins—did he move on to his answer to the “larger question” of the black man’s future.

His answer was as follows: “Where are those (African) civilisations now? They have all disappeared, and barbarism once more rules over the land and makes the thoughtful man nervous about the white man's future in Southern Africa. There are many people in South Africa—and not very foolish people either—who do not feel certain that our white experiment will be a permanent success, or that we shall ever succeed in making a white man's land of Southern Africa. But, at any rate, we mean to press on with the experiment.”

So, to come back to West and apply in hindsight a paraphrased version of his observation from Race Matters to the situation in South Africa in 1917: without the presence of black people in South Africa, European-South Africans would not be “white”—they would be Dutch and English, engaged in class, ethnic and gender struggles over resources and identity.

In other words, in Smuts’s World War I South Africa, it was only the presence of black people that made unity amongst whites important. More to the point—and read closely, this is essentially what Smuts was arguing in his famous speech—the fundamental reason that whites in South Africa needed to come together was so that they could present a united front against the real and more numerous enemy. 

Why then is it so important that Jan Smuts Drive in Cape Town remains Jan Smuts Drive and doesn’t become Dullah Omar Drive? The short answer: it isn’t. The family of the late Dullah Omar, anti-apartheid activist and first justice minister of the new democratic South Africa, know this, which is perhaps why they are not accepting the city’s current proposal for the name change—Vanguard Drive.

But there appears to be a fault in the Omar family’s “stated” reasoning. They feel, according to an Eyewitness News report, that “Jan Smuts Drive passes through various communities and business areas, which better reflect Omar’s views.” Jan Smuts Drive, it will be noted, bisects suburbs that are relatively “upper income”—Rondebosch East, Pinelands, the edges of Maitland—when compared to the course of Vanguard Drive—Hanover Park, Welcome, Bonteheuwel. Looked at on a map, the two streets are actually quite close in proximity, follow the same general route, and border either side of Langa - it’s just that the one isn’t as far into the Cape Flats.

So is this a race issue or a class issue? If the Omar family came right out and said that they felt the late paterfamilias is a better reflection of the principles of the new South Africa than Jan Smuts, a case could be made for the former. After all, nobody—or at least nobody of sound mind—is still complaining today that South Africa’s major international airport is named after OR Tambo.

But apparently they aren’t coming right out and saying it. They’re saying, according to Eyewitness News, that they want “Jan Smuts Drive to be renamed after (Dullah Omar) or nothing at all.”

Which makes this a typically South African story, with the perennial issues of class and race conflated and confused within the broader context of the natural human impulse towards prejudice. There must be some value, then, in taking the spat beyond our own tiny and intractable universe, and referring again to the words of Cornel West: 

“I begin with the notion that we are all cracked vessels, meaning that as vanishing organisms in space and time, we have fears, insecurities, anxieties, sometimes even inner demons with which we all have to come to terms. And given that humanness of each and every one of us, we're all part of a certain family, community, society, culture, history, which is shot through with different forms of xenophobia. This is what, in part, human history has been. So the question is going to be: what kind of courage do we have to examine those prejudices that we do have in order to become more decent and compassionate human beings?”

Would it be compassionate of the Omars to let Jan Smuts Drive alone and take the option of Vanguard Drive? Maybe. Smuts does still mean something to a small minority of the citizens of this country. And whatever he was, he wasn’t an HF Verwoerd.  But if not, if the Omars continue to insist that Vanguard Drive isn’t an option, the least they can do is call a spade a spade.  

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  • Kevin Bloom
  • South Africa


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