Jan Hofmeyr

Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr (1894-1948) was regarded as the leader of South Africa’s fledgling liberal political movement in the 1930s and 1940s. He had been a veteran politician, but was also “convinced that prevailing South African racial attitudes and policies could not be reconciled with either his Christian principles or his understanding of liberal democracy” (Deane 2001, 58–59). As a minister in the United Party government in 1936, he opposed his own party’s legislation that disenfranchised blacks and cordoned them off in the homelands (Robertson 1971, 15). He was vice president of the Institute of Race Relations from 1944 until his death in 1948 (ibid., 27).

Hofmeyr, a political polymath, held five Cabinet positions between 1933 and 1938. After he threatened to resign in 1937 when his party made threats against coloured rights, the prime minister, Jan Smuts, wrote that his resignation would “be a great loss,” and that Hofmeyr was “a good liberal with a fine human outlook.” Hofmeyr did resign from Cabinet later because of a different issue—the appointment by Prime Minister JBM Hertzog of an unqualified person to a vacant ‘native representative’ Senate seat. The 1910 Constitution required such senators to be “thoroughly acquainted” with black affairs, which Hertzog’s appointee was not (Lewsen 1987, 109).

Jan Hofmeyr, as Minister of Finance prior to a budget speech, in the 1930s. It appears that Hofmeyr is the namesake of “Jan Tax”, a South African saying that refers to the South African Revenue Service.

In March 1946, addressing an audience at the Johannesburg City Hall in his capacity as Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, Hofmeyr attributed South Africa’s racial problems to “a herrenvolk mentality” that was “the dominant mentality” in South Africa (Macdonald 1948, 11). He continued, arguing that “freedom from prejudice” is one of the major freedoms for which South Africans must fight. Their failure to do so was costing the country economic material, “international esteem and goodwill”, and morality. In this regard he quoted Thomas Jefferson, who said:

“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” (ibid., 12).

Hofmeyr criticised the growing tendency at the time — which for long thereafter became common and entrenched — of referring to anyone who believed in legal equality between whites and non-whites as “communists”.

In an apt description of the political attitudes of the time, Tom Macdonald (1948, 13) concluded of the speech:

“The Liberals applauded it. The Communists said that he was still spilling platitudes. The Nationalists thundered against it; many of the United Party colleagues of Jan Hofmeyr in the Parliament didn’t like the tone of it at all.”

Just before the election that unexpectedly propelled the National Party to power and marked the start of Apartheid, Tom Macdonald (1948, 216) pondered:

“The 1948 election will be vital for South Africa in many ways. It can decide the future of the country for good or ill for a long time. General Hertzog was once a fire-eater. He was out for a republic. He moderated when he became Prime Minister. It is said that the same thing will happen if the Nationalists again are in power. But would it?”

At some point, presumably in the mid- to late-1940s, Hofmeyr remarked:

“We have great resources, but we have failed in making the best use of them, especially on the human side. One of the chief tasks is to repair that failure on which will depend our success in the future. We must shed the present fear of the advancement of the Bantu people by showing our readiness to accept the advantages which that advance will bring in the expansion of our domestic markets and in other ways. Faith will also help us to solve the problem of maintaining white civilisation in the only way which it can be solved — by not keeping down the blacks.” (Macdonald 1948, 217-218)

Hofmeyr had been the Deputy Prime Minister under Smuts since 1938 and was expected to be Smuts’s replacement as leader of the United Party and Prime Minister of South Africa when Smuts retired. Hofmeyr’s untimely death in 1948—the same year as the National Party’s electoral victory over the United Party—represented a significant setback for liberalism in South Africa, and with him probably died any possibility of the United Party becoming more dependably liberal (Hughes 1994, 32–33; Robertson 1971, 27).

In the conclusion of virtually every chapter of Tom Macdonald’s 1948 biography, Jan Hofmeyr: Heir to Smuts, Macdonald restated that it was more or less a foregone conclusion that the brilliant Jan Hofmeyr was to be the next Prime Minister of South Africa (Macdonald XX, 218, XX). Hofmeyr died at the youthful age of 54 later that year, several months after the National Party vanquished his United Party government.

Click here for sources

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *