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Isie Smuts (nee Krige)

Sybella Margaretha (‘Isie’) Smuts (nee Krige) (1870 - 1954) was the wife of Jan Smuts and for a lengthy period a close friend of Olive Schreiner’s. Isie Krige was the second daughter of the nine children of Jacob Daniel (Japie) Krige, a respected wine and dairy farmer, and his wife Susanna Johanna (nee Schabort). Like Smuts, Krige attended the Victoria College in Stellenbosch, and there they both completed their higher matriculation examination in 1887, where Smuts was placed third in order of merit and Krige was placed ninth. According to Swart (1981: 585), Krige was “Intellectually talented... also sincere, artistic and thorough, if a little eccentric.”. Krige married Jan Smuts in April 1897.

During the South African War Isie Smuts was ordered to remain in her house in Pietermaritzburg, in spite of her alleged ‘pleas’ to go to a concentration camp in common with other Boer women. Although biographers have claimed that, in spite of her husband’s political prominence, she “chose to remain in the background as far as possible” (Swart 1981: 585), in fact Isie Smuts went on to become an important and prominent figure in South African cultural and political circles. She was actively involved in the South African Women’s Federation (Suid-Afrikaanse Vrouefederasie, SAVF), played a leading role in the Women’s United Party, and in 1940 founded the Gifts and Comforts Fund for soldiers during the Second World War.

Schreiner’s extant letters to Isie Smuts start in 1899 and end in 1917, with her first letter of 29 May 1899 acknowledging Isie’s letter already received and indicating from its content that the two women had already met. While Schreiner’s letters to Isie are not primarily focused on political matters, she nonetheless makes her political position to Isie clear from the start. These earliest letters were written in the period leading up to the outbreak of the South African War in 1899 and Schreiner demonstrates to Isie her allegiance to the Boer cause by her use of the inclusive ‘we’: “as long as we have this accursed gold”, or later “we are like sheep fighting for their lives”. While much of the surface content of Schreiner’s letters to Isie Smuts is focused on quotidian matters such as domestic concerns, servants, children, family news and so on, there is generally more of importance going on in the letters than may at first be apparent.

Firstly, Schreiner’s letters written to Isie Smuts during and shortly after the South African War shed interesting light on Schreiner’s involvement in wartime relief work, providing clothes, food and other aid for destitute families in and around Hanover. Secondly, Schreiner’s letters to Isie written in the aftermath of the War powerfully attest not only to post-war devastation, disease epidemics and food shortages, but also to the loss of political unity Schreiner felt characterised communities once the war was over: “We were all like ship-wrecked people on a raft at sea together, now we have landed and each one falls back into his own line of life, and the bond that held us together is gone!” Thirdly, it is apparent that in some of the letters ostensibly addressed to Isie Smuts, Schreiner was attempting to ‘reach’ Jan Smuts, either directly or indirectly. On 6 July 1912 for example, Schreiner writes in a letter to Isie, “You don’t know how much I care about your husband, and how I have hoped for his really great career in South Africa. No other South African has his brilliant intellect, his charm, his unwearied power of labour. But what I ask myself is ‘Does always see far enough?’”, presumably hoping that her comment would be passed on to Smuts himself. At other times she quite explicitly addressed herself to Jan Smuts, “Give my love to Neef Jan. Tell him to take care of my Indians and Natives for me while I’m away!”, a letter gleefully commented on in letters between Betty Molteno and Alice Greene, regarding Smuts’ inability to discern that Schreiner was poking fun of his racial paternalism.

Schreiner and Isie Smuts appear to have enjoyed a close and loving friendship for some years. Schreiner suggested that they drop epistolary formalities fairly early on and address one another by their first names: “all my friends call me Olive”. She confided in Isie about her various miscarriages, and shared other emotional intimacies, for example concerning the death of her baby daughter, writing in 1899, “a baby is a great joy to me. My little girl died when she was two days old”, and then later in 1901, “I always feel that if my little girl had lived I could have borne all”. Over time Schreiner seems to have been included in the wider Krige/Smuts family circle, receiving letters and parcels of food from Isie’s mother and sister. Indeed, Isie Smuts herself frequently sent Schreiner boxes of fruit, eggs, baked goods and clothes, sometimes accompanied by a note and sometimes not, with these gifts then taking the place of letters (see Stanley, Dampier and Salter 2012). Schreiner’s letters to Isie Smuts also frequently reflect on life and how it should be lived, and the importance of dealing generously with others. She wrote for example that the only wealth in life which is “worth having” is “health, children and true friends”, and that “The great thing in life is to love other things”.

By 1910 it was clear that Schreiner’s political differences with Jan Smuts were growing, and her attempts to urge him to take a broad, non-racial political path were not succeeding. She wrote to Isie in February of that year, “Please don’t think I don’t love you and Jan, or that any difference in my views on politics from yours makes any difference in my feelings to you.” However, after her departure from South Africa in 1913, Schreiner’s letters to Isie stopped, apart from a 1917 ‘catching up’ kind of letter, and it seems likely that this was in large part related to the political differences which had intensified between Schreiner and Jan and Isie Smuts.

For further information see:
M.J. Swart (1981) ‘Smuts, Sybella (Isabelle, Is(s)ie) Margaretha’ in (ed) C.J. Beyers Dictionary of South African Biography¬† Vol IV Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council, pp. 585 - 586
Shula Marks (2004) ‘Smuts, Jan Christiaan (1870-1950)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/36171 ¬†
Liz Stanley, Helen Dampier and Andrea Salter (2012, in press) “The Epistolary Pact, Letterness and the Schreiner Epistolarium” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
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