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Author Interview: Richard Steyn

Author Interview: Richard Steyn

Richard Steyn was inspired to write about former South African prime minister Jan Smuts because of how he was dropped from our history.

Words: Leon Marshall

Pictures: supplied

Jan SmutsIn the preface to his book, Jan Smuts – Unafraid of Greatness, Richard Steyn conjures up the tantalising image of Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Jan Smuts sitting down to dinner together in some celestial place. They look down on South Africa and discuss their contributions to its history.

The four are grouped together for sharing those qualities that cause some individuals to rise far above the rest, and for the mighty roles they played in the affairs of their countries and beyond. It fits with what Richard Steyn tells me about his reason for writing this book about a figure who, through the prism of the ‘new South Africa’, seems to belong to a very distant past.

We’re chatting on the sunlit porch of his home in Parkview, Johannesburg, and he explains that he started working as a lawyer but soon switched to journalism. This saw him become editor of The Star newspaper in the early 1990s, which brought him into close contact with one of his celestial dinner-table guests, Nelson Mandela.

He tells me he decided to write the book “precisely because of the way Smuts has been dropped from our history. This, while he remains one of our country’s finest sons… consulted by kings, prime ministers, generals, business people, diplomats and experts from all walks of life”. Churchill said about Smuts, ‘He did not belong to any single state or nation. He fought for his own country, he fought for the whole world’.

Steyn tells me that his book title Unafraid of Greatness comes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: ‘Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them’.

“Everybody regarded Smuts as great, even those who disagreed with him. He didn’t mind being great. He was unafraid even of telling the likes of Woodrow Wilson (America’s president during World War I who was himself regarded for his formidable intellect) what to do. He was unafraid of drafting the charter for the League of Nations and the UN…”

I enjoyed his book particularly for its story style, I remark. This delights Richard. “It is indeed a work of journalism, not of history. It is what I set out to do. I did not want it to be just another historical tome to be added to the volumes gathering dust on the shelves. I wanted to make it readable.”

The book is much about Smuts’ dominant role in domestic and international politics and military conflicts of his time, and about his impressive intellect, coupled with a photographic memory, that had him deliver philosophical treatises and delve into the natural world to the point of being commended by the likes of Albert Einstein, and being elected president of both the South African and the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Richard says he, in keeping with his journalistic approach, also touched on the lighter facets of Smuts’ persona. One such was his fondness for the company of bright and beautiful women, though his exchanges with them were mainly intellectual. There is no suggestion he was unfaithful to his wife, Isie.

As one-time newspaper colleagues, Steyn’s and my conversation inevitably switches to Smuts’ relevance to today’s situation. “It is the examples he set,” Steyn answers. “He was not materialistic, not corrupt and not afraid to take decisions.” 

Jan Smuts – Unafraid of Greatness (R257) is published by Jonathan Ball  

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