Marking the 150th anniversary of Jan Smuts’s birth
IT’S 150 years this year since statesman Jan Smuts was born – a milestone that went largely unremarked thanks to the Covid-19 lockdown, but not at Doornkloof, the family farm at Irene, east of Pretoria, which finally opened again this week to the public.
Students from the University of Pretoria (UP) used the opportunity once the lockdown eased to continue their five-year long JCP community project, painting different parts of the sprawling prefabricated house, while the Friends of the Museum, including a volunteer cultural historian, used the quarantine to rediscover Smuts and his wife Isie.
It was a mammoth task, said museum educator Christo Rabie. The layout of the house had become progressively more difficult for tour guides to explain and confusing for visitors to understand, because as a non-state-funded non-profit house museum, without a full-time curator, the collections had become haphazard and cluttered over time.
The team re-organised the entire collection, only the third time since the family home was bought in 1961, by what is now the General Smuts Foundation.
Each revision tended to reflect the sentiments of the times, he said, and as the previous display had emphasised Smuts’s work as prime minister and statesman, anglicising him in the process and effectively airbrushing his wife, Isie (also known as Issie).
The revisited displays at the house seek to recalibrate the emphasis entirely; starting with a proper contextual display in each room, with each theme leading to the next. The main living room, the “best room” or guest room and Smuts’s study have remained largely as they were, but it is the family bedrooms, used as exhibition rooms, that received the greatest attention.
“It’s important to keep visitors focused,” said Rabie, “before they would be completely overwhelmed and exhausted trying to take in what they were seeing.”
One of the biggest changes has been to locate Smuts as a Boer general, with a great love for his own people, without just focusing on his work as an iconic South African polymath and political leader, who helped found and pioneer the League of Nations after World War I and found the United Nations after World War II.
The second has been the revision of Isie’s own life
“It’s important to remember that she didn’t just run this farm, which she had to because this is what the family depended on to live, because Smuts didn’t always receive a government salary. She was also a formidable intellectual in her own right, a great humanitarian and a true patriot. Her work raising funds for the welfare of all South Africans and her efforts to send comfort packs to South African soldiers fighting in World War II, while ensuring prisoners of war held in South Africa were looked after too, is often totally forgotten.
“By 1942, she had single-handedly raised more than double the money that was raised for the building of the Voortrekker Monument, which began in 1938. Maybe that’s why she was hated because the money wasn’t for the Volk but the entire country,” mused Rabie. “Yet she never lost sight of her roots. She ensured her children and grandchildren grew up speaking Afrikaans, she was involved with the Vrouefederasie, made the traditional clothes that she, and some of their children and grandchildren wore to attend the centenary of the Great Trek, as well as the opening of the Voortrekker Monument Museum.”
Smuts died in 1950 and his ashes were scattered on the farm. Isie, who was born the same year as him, would die four years later. Her ashes were strewn on the koppie next to his.
“When you look at them, when you read all the letters they wrote each other; the interests they shared, like studying the Bible together in the original Greek, it was almost as if they were pre-destined to be together. She played a massive role in his life from confidant to political lobbyist, best friend, lover – bearing him nine children – and wife,” said Rabie.
* The Smuts Museum is open on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 9am to 3.30pm. Admission is R50 an adult and R30 for students and pensioners.