Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr was born in Cape Town on 20 March 1894, the younger son of Andries Brink Hofmeyr (1851-1897) and his second wife Deborah Catherina Boyers. His father was business manager of the newspaper Ons Land, Secretary of the Afrikaner Bond and a cousin of J.H. 'Onze Jan' Hofmeyr. His mother, a member of an old Stellenbosch family, was a strong imperious character, who had an important influence on her younger son.
Hofmeyr was a brilliant student, with an intellect bordering on genius. He matriculated, aged twelve, at the South African College School in 1906, first in the school and third in the Cape Colony. In 1909 he obtained a B.A. with first-class honours at the South African College, winning the university gold medal for literature and a Rhodes scholarship. Before going to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1913, he took a Science B.A. and a first-class Classics M.A. His career was equally brilliant at Oxford where he gained a double first in classical honour moderations in 1914 and literae humaniores in 1916. In this year he returned to South Africa, lecturing in classics at the South African College and, in December, being appointed Professor of Classics at the South African School of Mines and Technology, Johannesburg, later the University of the Witwatersrand. This was the start of an illustrious career at 'Wits' where he became principal in 1919, vice-chancellor (then an honorary post) in 1926 and chancellor in 1938.
Hofmeyr left the academic world in 1924 to become Administrator of the Transvaal, thus marking the beginning of his political career. He was a successful administrator, attracting the notice of men such as J.B.M. Hertzog and J.C. Smuts. In 1929 he won a by-election at Johannesburg North and helped to play a considerable part in welding the National and South African. Parties into the United Party. He became Minister of Education, the Interior and Public Health in 1933. His liberal attitude towards Blacks, Coloureds and Indians embarrassed the United Party, despite which he remained in the cabinet, changing his portfolio to Labour and Mines in 1936, until 1938 when he resigned over the appointment of A.P.J. Fourie to the senate as a member specially qualified to speak for the Blacks. He resigned from the United Party caucus in 1939 over the Asiatics (Transvaal Land and Trading) Bill but remained in parliament as an independent United Party supporter.
The outbreak of war led to his returning to the cabinet as Minister of Finance and Education and during the war years he worked unstintingly for the war effort, shouldering much of the burden when Smuts was overseas and he was acting prime minister. It was felt by many that his liberalism cost the United Party the election in 1948, although Hofmeyr himself retained his seat.
Many honours were bestowed on him. In 1945 he was awarded a D.C.L. by Oxford University and was sworn in as a privy councillor; in 1946 he was made an honorary fellow of Balliol and an honorary bencher of Gray's Inn. He was a brilliant administrator, an indefatigable worker and a liberal thinker but essentially a simple man who enjoyed boys' camps and cricket. His early death (on 3 December 1948) was a tragedy for South Africa.
Dictionary of South African Biography, Vol. II, p.309
A. Paton. South African tragedy: the life and times of Jan Hofmeyr (New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965)