Smuts was ‘very anxious that the name of South Africa shall not be tarnished with this peace [of 1919].’ With this in mind, he wrote to the Gilletts, his Quaker friends in England: ‘I am going to give our Germans good decent treatment in spite of the awful terms about their private property.’ (p8 – Jean van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts papers, Vol 5)
Smuts’ reaction was within keeping of Botha’s actions as well as those of Lord Kitchener towards the defeated. No doubt Smuts’ main aim concerned the Germans within the Union. Reconciling them would ease some issues in the mining fraternity given the links between some mining magnates and Germany, while it would also keep those who had rebelled against going to war with Germany quiet. How successful he was needs to be explored.
Looking at SWA (Namibia) which South Africa obtained as a mandate, the situation is less clear – half the German population was repatriated, the other half retained to help maintain the white presence. Was this compromise an attempt at ‘decent treatment’ or were there alternative economic and political drivers?
It’s not always easy discerning altruistic motives from others in such actions, but one would like to think humanitarian priorities dominate. Sadly, history seems to prove otherwise – if Smuts could reconcile the Germans and Botha the Boers (although unsuccessfully as it turned out), why did they not do the same with other South African groups? What got in the way? The same issues that ultimately prevented the Boer reconciliation? It takes two to tango so they say, it also takes two to keep/create peace. As Kitchener said about taking Africa into World War 1, why fight for something with all that loss when its future will be ultimately decided at the conference table. And as he planned for Egypt, reducing the wealth gap, bringing people closer together, would ultimately reduce conflict. Why it didn’t happen is ably explained by Wanagri Maathai in The Challenge for Africa…