The first building completed on the Groote Schuur campus was Men’s Residence which opened in 1928. After the death of General Smuts in 1950, it was renamed Smuts Hall in recognition of his role as UCT Chancellor from 1937.
Smuts was born near Malmesbury on 24 May 1870. He was an internationally regarded South African and Commonwealth statesman, military leader and philosopher. A brilliant scholar and alumnus of Victoria College (later Stellenbosch University) and Christ’s College Cambridge, his career spanned a broad sweep of our history including State Attorney in Kruger’s Republic, Boer general, a leading light of the National Convention establishing the Union of South Africa in 1910 and an author of its constitution, and commander of the campaigns in German South West Africa and German East Africa in the First World War. He was Prime Minister of South Africa 1919 – 1924.
Like so many leaders exposed to the slaughter of the Great War, he was at first a champion of the policy of appeasement in the Thirties. When he forced a vote in Parliament to take South Africa into war against European fascism, he again became Prime Minister 1939 – 1948.
He was a highly regarded botanist inducted as a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1930 and awarded an Honorary D.Sc. by UCT in 1931. His scientific contribution on grasses matched his life-long botanical passion with his long view of African economy with cattle and grazing. He pioneered the concept of holism and evolution, against the complex tapestry of South Africa and the recognition of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Einstein saw it as a partner to his construct of relativity.
He was a popular figure at UCT often hiking from Groote Schuur, his official residence nearby, to Table Mountain. He held the rank of a British Field Marshall and served in the Imperial War Cabinet of Winston Churchill. He was the only person to have signed both peace treaties at the conclusion of the First and Second World Wars and was an architect of both the League of Nations and United Nations Organisation.
In the scales of history, he remains controversial – reviled by some for unflinching action against fellow Afrikaners, trades union, “native” rebellions and his association with British and Imperial identities and causes. The apparent contradiction of a Utopian world view and actions during his administrations in South African are still leveled at “Slim Wily Jannie”. Nevertheless, he was a gigantic South African presence on the world stage – not seen again until Nelson Mandela assumed the mantle half a century later.
His statue located outside the South African National Gallery in Cape Town by British Sculptor Sydney Harpley was funded by public subscription and unveiled in 1964. It drew almost universal condemnation from a conservative public in a city with particu
larly mediocre public art but it was praised by others likening it to Rodin’s Balzac. Within months a new work was commissioned from South African sculptor Ivan Mitford-Barberton, also responsible for the bust in the tempietto above the Smuts Hall entrance. The “more realistic” work depicting him in mountain garb and gazing wistfully up Wale Street is not highly regarded. The choice of two versions of the same monumental South African about 500m apart, is perhaps an enduring endorsement of a “man for all seasons”.