Ouma’s Curtains

Isie Smuts and the Boer War

There is a lot to be said about South Africa’s most remarkable First Lady – Sybella (Isabelle – shortened to Isie or ‘Issie’) Margaretha Smuts, or as she was affectionally known by all – simply as .. “Ouma.” However to get a really good understanding of this petite but powerhouse of a woman, one only needs to know what she endured and did during and directly after the Boer War i.e. The South African War 1899-1902, and here one only has to look at her curtain rails – yup, simple curtain rails.

Not many know this, and its not in the official tour guide, but if you ever have the privilege to visit the humble correlated iron house that Jan and Isie Smuts lived in from 1910 in Irene, near Pretoria, now a museum – you may notice the family’s bamboo curtain rails, and they tell a story, so here goes;

Image: Bamboo curtain rails, Smuts House Museum, Irene – Picture: Peter Dickens

From the beginning of 1899 Jan Smuts was a leading legal and political figure in Kruger’s government of the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek (South African Republic, ZAR or Transvaal Republic). Smuts at the time lived with his wife Isie in a house on the corner of Troye and Walker streets in Sunnyside, Pretoria.

When the Boers declared war against the British on the 11th October 1899, it was with Smuts’ invasion plans that the Boer’s invaded the British Colonies of the Cape and Natal. War proved a highly trying time for Isie Smuts, but the worst was to come when Pretoria fell a mere 9 months into the war, and Isie bid farewell to her husband the evening of 4th June 1900 as he and General Botha rode away to take the ZAR government into the field with the other Boer commanders and commence the guerrilla warfare phase of the war, leaving Pretoria open for the British to occupy.

On occupying Pretoria the British took no time to gather whatever intelligence on the Boer army that they could, and Jan Smuts’ residence came into their sights. Using her initiative, Isie Smuts tore up all Jan’s letters written to her, except his first, and stuffed the scraps of paper into a cushion. She also rolled up Jan Smuts’ key documents and plans, deemed too important to destroy and hid them inside her ‘hollow’ bamboo curtain rails.

She also took the precaution of sewing gold sovereigns Jan Smuts had left her for a emergency, into a money belt. When she saw the enemy British soldiers approaching, “she dropped the belt into the boiling water of the kitchen copper” (Women South Africa Remembers” by Fay Jaff 1975), in spite of her protests the British soldiers entered her home, but still, she gave them freshly baked bread, still warm, from her oven.

During her separation from Jan Smuts, in August 1900 their baby son ‘Koosie’ died. Isie had to bear the burden alone, she wrote to Jan so he could learn of the loss by telegram, but the message never reached him. Jan Smuts also wrote to her, but she never received any of his letters in the first year of their separation.

By the beginning of 1901, Lord Kitchener, the British Chief of Staff, ordered that Isie Smuts be moved from Pretoria to a concentration camp in Pietermaritzburg. As a special concession, because of her status as Jan Smuts’ wife, Isie Smuts was afforded a small house near the camp. Isie packed up all their belongings and household items and effectively moved under ‘house arrest’ to Pietermaritzburg. She would pass her time making ‘comforts’ such as scarves for the women interned in the nearby camp.

Purposefully cut off from the outside world by the British, under house arrest, she was tormented with constant rumour that her husband had been killed, and likewise her husband was tormented whilst fighting in the field as he had no contact with his wife.

Eventually, a year after he departed Pretoria, in June 1901 she received her first letter from her husband, her response reveals the deep levels of trauma, she wrote, “I have read it and reread it so often that I know almost the whole by heart, and now I shall be able to live on those loving words for the many weary weeks to come . . .”

By special arrangement, Isie and Jan were allowed to see each other for a mere 24 hours in Standerton during a pause in the fighting. Isie was very ill at the time, war had taken a toll on her, she was prone to severe bouts of fatique and she weighed about 45kg. Her physical state distressed her husband, so he wrote to Lord Kitchener asking for permission to send her to Stellenbosch where her family could care for her, but his request was refused.

The couple were re-united some time after the Peace Treaty of Vereeniging was signed on 31st May 1902. Smuts urgently needed to go to the Cape Colony after the Peace was concluded to convince the acting Prime Minister, Thomas Graham to treat returning Cape Rebels fairly. On his return from Cape Town, Jan stopped in Pieter­maritzburg to see his wife and reassure himself that her health was improving. Their minds were put to rest by Doctors who said she would be well enough in 6 weeks to travel back to Pretoria. Smuts went ahead to re-claim his home which had been occupied by British Imperial Yeomanry during the war.

Between May 1902 and 1910, before Jan Smuts finally re-settled the family at Irene, the Smuts’ went about re-building their lives and having children. Isie Smuts was very understandably anti-British, given her treatment by them and her witness to the camps. She insisted on a Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek ‘ZAR’ Vierkleur (Four Colour) National Flag be present at each child’s birth, so they would be born under it and not under the occupier’s British Union Jack. In all, her first children were born when the ZAR existed as an independent Republic and she ensured all her remaining children when born, would be born under the Vierkleur (not a lot of people know this either – it’s not in mainstream accounts of the Smuts’ history). Not many people know this too, but according to the family, Jan Smuts, not surprisingly considering his experience of the war, also personally harboured a similar deep disregard for the British at this time.

Picture: The Smuts family at this time, superbly colourised by Jennifer Bosch

Isie’s Anglophobia did not stop there, she was totally anti-British, and openly hostile toward them. She even went so far as to stick stamps deliberately upside down on her letters, so as to make the King stand on his head. It was much later when Lord Paul Methuen, the Officer Commanding-in-Chief in South Africa, convinced her that the British were not all bad, he helped her overcome her prejudices to eventually support her husband in his efforts to reconcile the English and Afrikaner “races” to achieve peace, stability and ‘Union’ in South Africa.

Jan Smuts would also tease her and say she would be “punished” if any of her children married a Brit in the future, which ironically several of the Smuts children did, either marrying into wholly British or half English descendants. Isie’s future would see her rise to one of the most loved people in South Africa – English and Afrikaner alike – and she hit her stride during World War 2, during Jan Smuts’ second Prime Ministership, when she headed up the wartime ‘The Gifts and Comforts Fund’ in support of the men and women from South Africa fighting in the war, even visiting them in the combat zone, but that’s a remarkable story for another day.

In South Africa, one can still find people who swallowed Smuts’ political detractors rhetoric and will say that by reconciling with the British, he did not suffer or fully understand the indignity of the concentration camps. Utter poppycock, one only has to look at the fact that he not only lost family, he nearly lost his wife, such was his conviction to get a better peace for his countrymen by engaging guerrilla war tactics and becoming a ‘Bitter-einder’ in war already hopelessly lost. Of his reasoning for enduring the ‘Bitter-einder’ campaign Jan Smuts said “… two years more of war, the utter destruction of both Republics, losses in life and treasure … Aye, but it meant that every Boer, every child to be born in South Africa, was to have a prouder self-respect and a more erect carriage before the nations of the world.”

The journey for both Jan and Isie to overcome their hatred for the British and reconcile with them in 1910 for the good of all South Africans is one of the most generous and forgiving acts ever seen in South Africa, it was only seen again in 1994 when Nelson Mandela did the same (although the same could not be said of his wife).

Jan Smuts famously said “history writes the word ‘reconciliation’ over all her quarrels” and to anyone visiting the Smuts museum in future, look up at the simple curtain rails, and remember the courage of an ‘Ystervrou’ (iron woman) who endured during a highly destructive war, literally crippling her people and her remarkable journey to reconciliation with the enemy to the benefit of all.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.

With grateful assistance from Philip Weyers (Jan Smuts’ Grandson) and the Jan Smuts Foundation and family. Large reference and thanks to “Women South Africa Remembers” by Fay Jaff (1975). Also, with much thanks and gratitude to Jenny B Colourisation. Photos below – Smuts House Museum in Irene, the author and his wife with Philip Weyers.

2 thoughts on “Ouma’s Curtains

  1. Not enough has been written about this remarkable lady. Well done Peter.
    I especially take note of the Union of 1910 and the Smuts family reconciling with the British, all to benefit South Africans going forward.
    A remarkable leader and a remarkable lady.

    Liked by 1 person

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