Smuts Hall: Past and Prospective Changes of Symbols at UCT

UCT needs to be re-invented to serve its Community, Africa and the world, and continue to develop as an internationally admired and competitive university - not one that has been ‘cleansed’, ‘reframed’, ‘recalibrated’.

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Jan Smuts Hall

Universities worldwide face an array of challenges necessary to deal with and constructively overcome histories of exclusion and outright oppression. The strategy required is often made much more daunting due to the persistence of difficult to detect, long-standing, complex systemic structures and micro-aggressive social relations composed of intersecting, overlapping, and co-dependent policies, practices, ideas and behaviours. This situation is especially applicable to South African universities – most notably the University of Cape Town (UCT – see here, here, here and here) – that struggled under decades of colonial, race-based segregation and discrimination followed by more decades of ‘legal’ Apartheid oppression.

Since the late 1970s, there have been many significant changes at UCT that have identified and deconstructed damaging causes and effects of this oppression. Much of the most significant transformation has involved addressing imbalances in the demographics of Her student and staff populations. However, much more needs to be done to reinvent a UCT that achieves meaningful inclusion while retaining sustainable excellence. But, what ‘much-mores’ make historical sense and should be given high priority?


A high profile and contentious strategy for ‘decolonizing’ UCT has involved ‘robing’, removal, renaming – and even destruction – of roads, buildings, statues, artwork and other ‘symbols’. These practices have been ‘justified’ because the targeted symbols “commemorate” individuals, concepts, practices and imagery connected with past and ongoing oppression. The targeted entities, somewhat incongruously, include inter alia: a Statue of Rhodes’; Jameson Memorial Hall; A Township Scene by Vusi Khumalo; a portrait of Chancellor and mega-UCT-donor Harry Frederick Oppenheimer by Bernard Hailstone; a portrait of Jan Christiaan Smuts by Edward Roworth; a portrait of Edward, Prince of Wales by John Wheatley; a portrait of a white man with a black woman on his lap by Breyten Breytenbach; Extinguished Torch of Academic Freedom, Release Our Leaders, and Rekindling the Torch of Academic Freedom – all by Richard Keresemose Baholo; and a statue Saartjie Baartman created by Willie Bester.

    Dressing up Saartjie Baartman      
Dressing up Saartjie Baartman | Source: Provided by the Author

It seems that next in line is Smuts Hall (SH).

After his death in 1950, it was named after brilliant law scholar, soldier/conciliator, international statesman, nation builder, anti-imperialist, anti-Nazi warrior, ardent National Party opponent, philosopher (Holism and Evolution), past South African Prime Minister and UCT [and Cambridge University] Chancellor – Field Marshal Jan Christian SmutsOM, CH, ED, PC, KC, FRS (1870–1950).

UCT’s Students’ Representative Council has approached the UCT Council, via its Naming of Buildings Committee, to find a more “appropriate and representative name” for SH “in line with the direction the institution aspires to”. In its ‘perception-based’ submission, the SRC decries the “colonial, imperialist and racist legacy of Jan Smuts” and claims that the residence’s appellation somehow “contributes to the character of its inhabitants”, who are “usually…private school matriculants”. Also according to the SRC, there are also” a greater number of white students” in SH who are “perceived [by whom?] through their residence and by extension through their residence name [sic] as being racist and classist”.

Incinerating Smuts UCT
Incinerating Smuts UCT | Source: Provided by the Author

Just what and who did Smuts represent? What did he aspire to? Most importantly, what did he DO. For a more detailed, balanced, dispassionate account of Smuts, read Jan Smuts – Unafraid of Greatness by Richard Steyn.

What follows is a brief summary.

First – and most damning – for most of his life, Smuts was an unapologetic segregationist and paternalistic white supremacist. He ‘represented’ those who believed that human ‘races’ were fundamentally different, with ‘whites’ being “advanced people” entrusted to “look after the more backward forms” by promulgating the values of Western European Christian Civilization. Most of his political actions were based on the belief that reconciliation between Afrikaans and English-speakers was the priority and vital to the success of South Africa.

Yet, in his seventies, during his last decade as a politician, he began to question this view, telling the South African Institute of Race Relations in that segregation had “fallen on evil days” and “The idea that the Natives must all be removed and confined in their own kraals is in my opinion the greatest nonsense I have ever heard.” To that end, he commissioned and supported – in direct opposition to the policies of the National Party – the report of the Fagan Commission that recommended relaxation of “influx control” of African people to urban areas and the creation of a stabilised population of African workers within urban areas. It also envisaged a relaxation of the pass laws that had restricted the movement of black Africans.

Moving in this political direction may have contributed to his shocking election (rigged?) defeat in the 1948 national election that brought about the creation and ruthless implementation of Apartheid.

Another major event that ensured his political downfall and racist legacy was the sudden and premature death of 54 year-old Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr – Smuts’ closest political ally and certain successor as party leader. Hofmeyr, Smuts’ intellectual equal, viewed academic freedom of thought and freedom of expression as a university’s most cherished possessions which, if surrendered, destroyed the very justification of its existence. Universities he said: “should know no distinctions of class, wealth, race or creed”. As early as 1929, Hofmeyr spoke against an Immigration Quota Bill that had been tabled by D.F. Malan to restrict Jewish immigration into South Africa. During the 1930s, Hofmeyr argued against racially discriminatory laws, becoming progressively more liberal. His progressive attitudes towards People of Colour were at the vanguard of liberal opinion for that time. Whenever he recognized injustice, he did not hesitate to speak out against it. Hofmeyr opposed the removal of the Black franchise in 1936 and resigned from the Cabinet and left his party caucus over a political appointment that disadvantaged Coloured people.

Smuts eulogized him:

“He has passed on, but his service and the high spirit in which he sought to serve his country and his fellow-men of all races remain our abiding possessions. This is a better and richer country for his service, and his message will not be forgotten.”

With regard to Smuts’ aspirations and actions, here’s a list:

After playing a key role in ending military confrontation and the savage (50000 lives lost) incarceration of white Afrikaners and Blacks in concentration camps to end the Second South African War, he helped to create the Union of South Africa and headed three key ministries – Interior, Mines, and Defence – in the resulting government.

Smuts promoted human rights abroad by playing key roles in ending both World Wars. During WW1, he excelled as field general defeating in the Imperial German Army in Namibia (then German South-West Africa) who had perpetrated the Herero and Namaqua genocide during 1904-1908. He also served on the Imperial War Cabinet and was instrumental in the creation of the Royal Air Force.

Smuts was a key negotiator at the Paris Peace Conference that ended WW1 and favored reconciliation with Germany and limited reparations (and persisted in this between the World Wars), and advocated the creation of the League of Nations. Had his wise advice been followed by world leaders, there may never have been a ‘Nazi Germany’.

He was an architect of the United Nations that attempted and realized a post-war international liberal order, and wrote the first draft of the preamble to the United Nations Charter.

With South African College Prof. [and first UCT Vice Chancellor] John Carruthers ‘Jock’ Beattie, he brokered the ‘deal’ to locate the ‘national’ university – envisaged by megalomaniac imperialist, voracious capitalist, white supremacist and famous benefactor Cecil John Rhodes – in Cape Town and not Johannesburg and persuaded major colonialist Randlords Sir Otto Beit and Sir Julius Wernher to fund its construction.

During his first stint as prime minister, he put down an armed uprising, the Rand Rebellion of 1922. The rebels were backed by Afrikaner commandos and sought to maintain the racially hierarchical division of labour within the mining sector. White communist trade union members who identified as ‘Reds’ also organized commandos under the leadership of people who called themselves the ‘Federation of Labour.’ They seized control of some mines, with bands of white men shooting and bludgeoning unoffending Africans and coloured men ‘as though they were on a rat hunt’.

Smuts was widely criticized for his severe handling of the revolt. He lost support and was defeated in the 1924 general election.

After his defeat, he was asked to go to Ireland to help broker an armistice and peace deal between the warring British and Irish nationalists.

While in academia as a botanist, Smuts collected researched plants extensively over southern Africa, and went on several botanical expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s.

As a philosopher, he pioneered the concept of ‘holism’, which he defined as “[the] fundamental factor operative towards the creation of wholes in the universe” in his 1926 book, Holism and Evolution. This laid the philosophical foundation for the biological science Ecology. Smut’s book was translated into German by Alfred Adler, who regarded his theory of “individual psychology” as holistic.

Although he and MK Gandhi were political adversaries, they respected and even admired one another. In 1908, Smuts was confronted with resistance led by Gandhi. Gandhi and the Indian community were protesting against compulsory registration as dictated by the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance of 1906. After writing to him from prison, Smuts met with Gandhi, and agreed to make registration voluntary, which became known as the Gandhi-Smuts- compromise. In 1939, the then once again Prime Minister Smuts wrote a highly complimentary essay marking Gandhi’s 70th birthday.

In 1930, the British Association for the Advancement of Science honoured him by requesting him to take up office as their president the following year. Smuts’ address was titled “The Scientific World Picture of Today” and his contribution made mention of developments in physics, nuclear physics and astronomical theory.

When Nationalist Prime Minister Hertzog was defeated in parliament on the motion to remain neutral during the WW2, Smuts took over as premier and resolutely committed South African entry to the war to defeat Nazi Germany. This decision alienated many of the Afrikaans-speaking people from his government.

Soon after the end of WW2, inspired by the Native Representative Council, the African National Congress (ANC), and the Transvaal Indian Council, Smuts established the Fagan Commission to investigate laws relating to urban Blacks, pass laws, and the socio-economic circumstances of migrant workers.

During WWII, he served Winston Churchill in the Imperial War Cabinet and was appointed a field marshal of the British Army. Smuts was even considered as a possible replacement as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom should Churchill die or otherwise become incapacitated.

After the WW2, in domestic policy, Prime Minister Smuts instituted a number of social security reforms. Old-age pensions and disability grants were extended to Indians and Africans in 1944 and 1947. The Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1941 “insured all employees irrespective of payment of the levy by employers and increased the number of diseases covered by the law,” and the Unemployment Insurance Act of 1946 introduced unemployment insurance on a national scale.


In 2004, Smuts was named by voters in a poll held by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) as the 9th Greatest South African of all time.


As a matter of transparency and true restorative justice, Smuts Hall should not be renamed without broad consultation of the UCT Community and especially past and current residents of SH. UCT Council member Michael Cardo seems to concur and I paraphrase: SH residence alumni, “black and white, might proudly identify as Smutsmen while rejecting, at their core, the racial politics [he] espoused”. Is it not possible that the UCT Community has “transcended his politics”? If so, “this is a cause for celebration” not the erasure of heritage. It “would be a tragedy if the racial chauvinism of the past were to be resculpted and acclaimed as the politics of progress in the present”.

If Council acts rapidly and precipitately to disconnect UCT with Smuts, it could alienate important sectors of UCT’s Community and others beyond. It could also empower those who wish to replace/remove names/symbols of UCT’s unforgettable history and heritage without broad consultation. VC Duminy has already been ‘officially’ labelled as “kowtowing” to the Apartheid Regime, creating the internationally broadcast perception that UCT is “rife with systemic racism”. Next will be Beattie. Then there will be more ‘historical’ and public ‘intellectual’ pieces on other VCs – even perhaps Ramphele – ‘exposing’ their ‘betrayal’ and ‘oppression’ of one or more ‘groups’ of people.

If this destructive decolonization intensifies, who will continue to respect – let alone want – to send their kids to UCT? How can She attract the best-of-the-best undergrads, postgrads, postdocs and outside collaborators? Who would want to be employed at this ‘World-Class’ university? Who would want to invest in Her?

UCT needs to be re-invented to serve its Community, Africa and the world, and continue to develop as an internationally admired and competitive university – not one that has been ‘cleansed’, ‘reframed’, ‘recalibrated’.

I close with telling message from two Black women.

Poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Journalist activist Nikole Hannah-Jones: “You can’t pick and choose what parts of history we think are important and which ones aren’t.”

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  1. Richard hutton Reply

    Sad that young South Africans don’t appreciate what men like Jan Smuts did for the world . We can all learn from their brilliance and energy and be motivated by them and not just see them as racial pawns.

  2. UCT: Changing Names and Colours - Rational Standard Reply

    […] my last piece, like current Council member Michael Cardo, I respectfully requested that UCT’s Council carefully […]

  3. Smuts Hall: Erasing History - Rational Standard Reply

    […] One webinar questioner queried why Smuts name should be erased – and his bust be removed – from the men’s residence given his “pivotal roles” academia and in global, South African and UCT’s history. I outlined some of these ‘roles’ in an earlier piece. […]

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