May Hobbs Letters, National Archives Depository, Pretoria

May Hobbs Letters, National Archives Depository, Pretoria

Jan Smuts and May Hobbs

The modestly named May Hobbs collection contains some hundreds of letters to her from the well-known South African politician Jan Smuts.

Jan Smuts (1870-1950), a lawyer and military general turned leading politician, is a key figure in South African history. He wrote the ‘race and franchise’ clause in the 1902 Treaty of Vereeniging which removed any chance of universal male suffrage following the South African War (1899-1902). He drafted the 1909 South Africa Act that brought about Union of the four settler stats), doing so in a way that ensured that no black franchise would exist beyond the Cape; and also included a provision for the future legal absorption of the then-Rhodesia and the African Protectorates of Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland (which in the event did not happen). Later as Minister of State, he ferociously squashed strikes in 1913 and 1920; did a political deal with the Nationalist and racist Hertzog; gave a 1917 speech at the Mansion House in London promoting segregation and in effect inventing the idea of an apartheid state. Smuts inherited the Prime Ministership of South Africa following the death of Louis Botha and was its PM from 1919 to 1924, and from 1939 to 1948. Insofar as any one person can be seen as responsible for a political and state system coming into being, this is Smuts in relation to segregation, institutionalised racism and the South African state.

May Elliot Hobbs (1872-1956) lived in Galashiels in Scotland and was married to a farmer, Robert Hobbs, known as Bert. During World War 1 she was in the Women’s Land Army and through such activities became friends with the Clarks and the Gillets, via whom she met Jan Smuts in 1917. The Clarks, of shoe manufacturing fame, were Liberal pacifist and Margaret Clark (later Gillet) had earlier been a ‘ruined areas’ relief worker with Emily Hobhouse in South Africa. Smuts was a close friend of various women in these interconnected families. At the time of him meeting May Hobbs, Smuts was a Privy Councillor and senior army figure and was living for much of the wartime in Britain, mainly in London. Hobbs and Smuts developed a relationship that was passionate on her side and involved but more restrained on his and was one of a string of such relationships maintained over many years.

In 1935 Hobbs visited South Africa and stayed at Irene, the farm near Pretoria that was the main home for Smuts and his wife Isie. They also met on other occasions when he visited Britain on political business. His letters were neatly kept in their original envelopes by May Hobbs and then later donated by her or her heirs to the South African national collections.

The letters to May Hobbs

There are a number of Smuts collections in the National Archives in Pretoria, South Africa. Indeed, a Smuts collection was the first one formed when National Archives began and is numbered A1. Given the range and the importance of Smuts’ activities, it is not surprisingly that this is both extremely large and also very complex, and also that there are other relevant collections in addition. One of these is composed by the 400 manuscript letters written by Smuts to May Hobbs.

The correspondence between them started in February 1919 and continued through to Smuts’s death in May 1950, a momentous period in South African history. His letters are friendly, chatty and familiar, and are Smuts’ side of exchanges between close friends who are comfortable with each other and whose relationship could sustain some frankness about disagreements or problems that arose. The very last letter is dated 11 May 1950. On a slip of paper place inside the envelope, in May Hobbs’ writing, is — “He took ill May 28 – Last letter – Only messages through Mr Cooper his faithful Secretary, who read my letters to him, when he was able to hear them & sent his answers to me – Died Sept 11th 50”. All very sad, although part of life’s rich pattern.

Smuts’ letters to Hobbs can perhaps be described as probably more interesting for the recipient and the writer than they are for most third-party readers now. They are mainly quotidian exchanges between people keeping in touch, commenting on their everyday doings, asking about the other person and what is going on in their life, and expressing mild opinions about matters of concern to them, but with little that is obviously exciting or controversial. There are of course exceptions to this general rule, with occasionally interesting political or other public matters commented on. However, such things are relatively rare.

Their interest lies in a number of other aspects. They provide an insight into how Smuts in relaxed way represented himself and his life to a woman friend; they deal with quotidian matters and throw considerable light on ‘ordinary letter-writing’; and they provide a fascinating instance of ‘white writing’ about the South African context in which Smuts was a major protagonist. Particularly interesting aspects of the letters are as follows.

Deigning to notice

For most of the time-period covered by this collection of letters, Smuts was living in South Africa with its predominantly African population. That there were many black people living there would have been inescapable, not least because the large majority of labour of all kinds was carried out by black people. Smuts was obviously not unaware of matters connected with race and race politics, and was responsible more than anyone else for orchestrating over a long period of time the structural aspects of its race policies and its major changes in the direction of segregation and eventually apartheid. But in these letters, fields plough themselves, cars drive themselves, clothes wash themselves, food cooks itself.

These and other forms of labour do themselves, something that is accomplished by a removed sentence construction being used which obviates human presence and agency, so that things appear in the form of ‘the car took me to the parliament building’ and ‘the mielies [corn] were harvested’. Segregation already exists when in exchanges that occur people remove from notice and mention what they do not want to see and what they do not want to be there, so that aspects of social life are thereby made silent and invisible. The phrase ‘he does not deign to notice’ captures something of this. The people doing these laborious tasks were not deemed significant enough for their presence to be mentioned, to be registered and recorded, while the cars, the crops, the food and the clothes were.

In these  letters, over 400 of them written over a thirty year period,, there are very few instances of Smuts noticing to the extent of recording aspects of the racial order around him and which he had been significantly involved in creating. These add up to a set of comforting generalisations:

  • ‘The country is a good one with the ‘indispensable native’ doing the labour’
  • ‘To be pro-native is to be ‘negrophilistic’ and anti-settler’
  • ‘Natives do basic menial tasks and are doubly described in diminishing raced ways, as with ‘Native cook boy’’
  • ‘There are also other natives, the ‘grinning natives’ who are still natural savages’
  • ‘Good white men as employers or rulers protect their natives’
  • ‘However, the native mentality is different from the European one and Europeans have to beware the dangers of being absorbed’
  • ‘South African people of all colours are happy and smiling and only ignorant outsiders think differently’

How should this apartheid of the pen be understood? Is it, for example, because this is just the Smuts end of the correspondence, and if Hobbs’ letters to him were also available then together they would add up to a greater recognition of race matters? Or perhaps is it be a product of the particularities of Smuts’ friendship with May Hobbs, and that elsewhere his letters might be very different?

There is something in both these points, for certainly elsewhere in the Smuts collections different views about race and racism are raised in letters to Smuts by Alice Clark and Margaret Gillet, and Smuts’ letters to political colleagues and enemies do discuss race matters regarding politics. But this is not the same as what appears – and does not appear – in Smuts’ letters to May Hobbs. These are different kinds of letters. They were not written to intellectual or political equals, but to someone in a different sphere of activity. They are not about politics or ethics or principles, but instead represent something more everyday, ordinary and quotidian, the cars arriving, crops being picked, meals being cooked, clothes washed, doors opened and so on. This is where their importance lies.

It is perhaps possible to read Smuts’ letters to Hobbs just on this level, as ordinary letters about ordinary things. But doing so would require either ignorance of basic things about South Africa between 1919 and 1950 and thereafter, or else an approach that is shaped and blinkered in the same ways as the heterotopic vision that Smuts’ letters represent to Hobbs. For most present-day readers neither is likely, so his is a silencing that resounds. Reducing complicated circumstances to silence and absence in the way these letters do is an important component of white writing, wherein lies their greatest interest.

 

Last updated: 4 March 2017


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