Richard Steyn’s first book, a slim volume titled Jan Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness, was a highly regarded and sorely needed rehabilitation of SA’s most neglected of great men.

However, his second book is in a class of its own. In a world with more than 1,500 biographies of Winston Spencer Churchill, and more being published all the time, former newspaper editor Steyn has written what is likely to be the go-to reference work for decades on one of the most interesting and longest-running political friendships of all time.

The friendship between Smuts and Churchill lasted for 50 years, including through two world wars, and overcoming a rocky start, when the two men found themselves on opposite sides of the Anglo-Boer War.

The young Winston had come to SA as a war correspondent to cover a conflict in which he thought the mighty British Empire would quickly curb the "insolent Boers". He was captured in an ambush of an armoured train in Natal and held in a prisoner-of-war camp in Pretoria, from which he quickly escaped.

It was Smuts, as the state attorney for the Boer republic of the Transvaal — all of 29 years old — who issued the arrest warrant for Churchill. But the young journalist made good his escape, to return to England as a hero and launch his political career.

As Steyn deftly sketches, these two men were a study in contrasts on the face of it. Smuts, from a poor family, was academically brilliant and had won a law scholarship to Cambridge, where he was viewed as one the brightest minds of his generation. Churchill, from a wealthy aristocratic family, barely scraped through school despite his prodigious intelligence. Smuts was the ascetic, a spiritual seeker who in later years developed the philosophy of holism. Churchill was the lifelong sybarite, with whisky and cigar always at hand.

But they were both also resilient men of action, unafraid of physical danger. And once the battle was over, they shared a rare generosity of spirit towards the former foe — a generosity that changed the fundamentals of their respective political universes.

After the Anglo-Boer War, Churchill had, against the prevailing sentiment in his party, lobbied hard for the British government to extend a hand of friendship to the Afrikaners. Smuts, the war hero, had made himself similarly unpopular among Afrikaners by preaching for reconciliation with the British conquerors.

Those strands came together in 1906, just four years after the Peace of Vereeniging, when the two old adversaries met again. Churchill was under-secretary for the colonies and Smuts was deputy leader of the Het Volk party, in London to plead the cause of Boer self-government. The outcome was the birth of the Union of SA, under the British crown.

This marked the real beginning of friendship and respect between the two men — a proxy for a growing warmth in the relationship between the two nations.

Shaping the world

In 1916, SA entered World War 1 on the British side, with Louis Botha as prime minister, and Smuts as head of the Union’s defence force. Again in 1939, at the outbreak of World War 2, SA, with Smuts as prime minister, immediately stood by Britain in a conflict in which all the odds appeared to favour the Nazi aggressor.

During the 1914-1918 war, both served in Britain’s war cabinet, to which Smuts was effectively seconded for the duration of the conflict. It was Churchill, as first lord of the admiralty, who had in 1909 seen the potential of air power and established the Royal Naval Air Service. Smuts was tasked with melding together the separate air arms into the Royal Air Force, among many other duties.

At the end of the war, as well as outlining the model for the League of Nations, Smuts drafted Lloyd George’s speech, which declared that Britain’s war aims had been "based upon achieving justice for those who had suffered rather than a desire for vengeance". This echoed the views of Churchill, but it was a position that did not prevail at the Paris Peace Conference, which set the harsh reparation penalties that in the 1930s led to the rise of Adolf Hitler.

The 1920s and 1930s were the wilderness years, with both men losing political office, though their friendship was growing, fuelled by a steady correspondence.

At the outbreak of World War 2, with Churchill restored to office and Smuts’s own political yo-yo again on the ascendancy, Churchill sent a telegram to the new SA prime minister: "I rejoice to feel that we are once again on commando together."

Again the two men worked unusually closely, with Smuts in Churchill’s war cabinet and appointed a field marshal in the British army. Contrary to popular mythology, Smuts never stood in for Churchill as prime minister when he was abroad.

It is one of the ironies in both men’s careers that their triumphs in World War 2 segued into political disaster.

Churchill lost the 1945 general election at the moment of military triumph. Though he remained politically active until shortly before his death in 1965, the glory years were over.

Smuts, despite his stature as an international statesman who had drafted the preamble to the UN charter, lost the 1948 election as unexpectedly. When he died two years later, aged 80, Churchill wrote of his dear friend: "[We] who are left behind to face the unending problems and perils of human existence feel an overpowering sense of impoverishment and irreparable loss."

As Steyn points out, despite the carping revisionists, Churchill’s reputation has grown in lustre since his death. In sad comparison, Smuts has been forgotten internationally, while in SA the response to him ranges from benign indifference to hostile antipathy, primarily because the views he held on race issues are so out of step with our modern political morality.

Nevertheless, Smuts and Churchill are the two colossuses who shaped the very world that gave these new moralities the space and freedom to flourish, an incontrovertible reality that Steyn conveys with clarity and elegance in this magnificent book.

Churchill and Smuts: The Friendship by Richard Steyn. Jonathan Ball

•  William Saunderson-Meyer: @TheJaundicedEye

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