Thursday, 17 November 2011

Lessons from Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr


Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr
20 March 1894 - 3 December 1948

Article by Dr Roos Muller
Cape Times, November 3, 2011

South Africans have all too often been guilty of objectifying the other, that is, those who are not like us, as Professor Milton Shain indicated in his article on anti-Semitism before and during World War II. But we also have a history of producing strong individuals of principle who are unafraid to publicly defend an extremely unpopular stance, even to their own detriment.

At a time when the Jewish population of South Africa sorely needed a champion within the ranks of the governing party, who themselves were under severe political threat by the nationalist right-wing, one of the most remarkable and under-valued men this country has ever produced, Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr, rose to meet that challenge.

The time that Shain refers to, after the accession of Adolf Hitler to power in Germany in 1933, was also a period of vicious anti-Semitism in South Africa. Dr DF Malan preached that Jews were unassimilable and his old newspaper, Die Burger, entrenched anti-Jewish attitudes by publishing articles denying any persecution of German Jews.

Into this fraught arena stepped Hofmeyr. He was born in 1894 into a politically connected family. His father, who died when Hofmeyr was almost three, was the cousin of “Onze Jan” Hofmeyr, a politician in the Cape liberal tradition who became a mentor to the younger Hofmeyr. The brilliant boy was also related to Jan Smuts on his mother’s side. He was considered a child genius; he matriculated from SACS at 12 and by the age of 17 had completed bachelor degrees in arts and science and an MA, a biography on Onze Jan and had won a Rhodes Scholarship – while still wearing short pants. His life was dominated by his formidable mother, Deborah, who doted on him.  She kept a firm grasp on her son, accompanied him to Oxford and lived with him for the remainder of his relatively short but stellar life. 
JH with mother Deborah
He was a thinker of intense depth and conscience, and found it intolerable to support anything he did not think had a valid ethical or intellectual basis. This uncompromising position can be a death-knell in politics, the very harbour of compromise. That Hofmeyr survived a remarkable political career, including deputy prime minister, a slew of senior ministerial positions, and acting prime minister during WWII, no doubt came at least in part from the political patronage of SA leader Smuts who spent most of that war overseas.

Hofmeyr never flinched. His first maiden speech as MP in 1929 attacked the Quota Bill, the work of Malan, who sought to restrict Jewish (and Indian) immigration, though he had had a part in the introduction of a new Aliens Bill in the (vain) hope of defusing the rising spectre of anti-Semitism. When Verwoerd and five other professors from the University of Stellenbosch angrily protested at the arrival of the SS Stuttgart in 1936, carrying hundreds of Jewish refugees, he publicly condemned their actions.

When another 75 German Jews arrived on the Guilio Cesare shortly afterwards, more protest meetings were held by Verwoerd attacking Hofmeyr. It became commonplace to hear ordinary officials and those working within our public sector refer to the “Jewish menace”. In 1937 the new minister of the interior, Richard Stuttaford, introduced a Bill with the intent of controlling immigration; everyone knew that the real agenda behind it was to end Jewish immigration at a time when Jews still had a chance to escape from Germany.

Hofmeyr opposed it: a visit to India had entrenched his recognition of the dignity and self-respect of other heritages. In particular, he believed it was wrong to legislate against social interaction: despite his own admitted reservations about “mixing” and intermarriage, he believed that proposed laws prohibiting them were insensitive and blind to the great heritage of those others, and that it was to the detriment of South Africa that it attempted to introduce such Bills.

In his Coming of Age, Hofmeyr wrote that the term “native problem” was a mistake; the real issue at stake he thought, was that of race relations. In a speech at Fort Hare University in 1937 he elaborated his thoughts as a private, rather than a political, individual, when he said, “I see no solution of what I refuse to call the native problem, what I shall call the problem of race relations, save on the basis of the recognition that white man and black man are possessors of a common humanity” (South African Outlook, May 1937).

It was this conviction that drove him to oppose almost single-handedly from the government benches the vicious onslaught of such political opponents as the fascist Oswald Pirow, a devotee of  Hitler.  Hofmeyr warned when speaking at the first annual general meeting of the newly formed Society of Jews and Christians that anti-Semitism was a precursor of dictatorship, concluding by saying that “it is not by showing hostility to a certain section of the people, but only by welcoming the contributions which all sections of the community can bring, that a nation is built”.

Hofmeyr was man of honour. Despite his great privileges as a member of the Afrikaans ruling elite, he refused to place his principles at the mercy of political expediency. It would lead to him being blamed, shamefully, by supporters of Smuts for the loss of the general election after WWII in 1948, after an anti-Hofmeyr campaign of vilification by the opposition assured frightened voters that his name was synonymous with swart gevaar. 

Alan Paton, who knew him well, wrote in his extraordinary biography of Hofmeyr that it was his very courage and honesty that made him the perfect target. “Outdated as some of his ideas might appear to those who came after him, they were honourable attempts to break out of the chains in which white South Africa had been confined for centuries… (his) was the defeat of every South African of whatever colour or kind who desired to strengthen interracial bonds, to deepen inter-racial knowledge, to teach South Africans not to judge in terms of race and colour, to teach them to see each other as men and women with a common land and a common destiny.”
Hofmeyr with Gen. Smuts

It was not Smuts who was defeated, but Hofmeyr’s ideals; more than a half-century later, I still hear liberal Afrikaners blaming Hofmeyr for that election defeat, instead of honouring his name. Six months later in 1948, Hofmeyr was dead, still in his early 50s. Many believed he was worn out. Though today some of his attitudes feel old-fashioned, we have not acknowledged his pioneering public stances introduced during an era drenched in racial prejudice. Not only Jews, but South African Indians in particular, and all those who were considered “not white”, were championed by one who was not called upon, but chose it as a steadfast result of his own intellectual and personal pursuits.

Hofmeyr died in Johannesburg  almost six months after the National Party came to power with their slogan of apartheid. He was buried two days later from the Dutch Reformed Church in Bosman Street. His funeral procession was two miles long, of which the streets were lined by thousands of people, an estimated 10,000 present in total. General Jan Smuts paid tribute to Hofmeyr both at the graveside, and on the evening before in a national radio broadcast.

Of Hofmeyr he said:  “Here was the wonder child of South Africa, with a record with which South Africa shows no parallel, who from his youngest years beat all records, whose achievement in a comparatively brief life shows no parallel in this land, and whose star at the end was still rising... 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. “



A person of Hofmeyr’s stature and courage comes along all too seldom: we must hope that there are others, here and now, who will be able to transcend personal and party loyalties and seek solutions which reject the categorisation of anyone else as “other”, and have the courage to find and embrace our common destiny.

● Dr Roos Muller is a former activist, and a writer on political and literary issues.  For more detailed bio  on Jan Hendrik, here is the link to Wikipedia:


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