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THE GIFTS AND COMFORTS FUND

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THE GIFTS AND COMFORTS FUND

By: David Rilley-Harris, Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History (DNMMH)

 

Isie “Ouma” Smuts (Picture: X.com).

 

The Ouma Gifts and Comforts Fund was created shortly after the beginning of the Second World War (1939-1945) and was charged with sending morale packages to soldiers who were being mustered in South Africa or were on the front lines. The fund began its life as the Gifts and Comforts Committee and was initially meant to draw on government funding. In the First World War (1914-1918), the Governor-General’s Fund had the same responsibility but also supported families on the home front who needed help. In the Second World War it was decided that the Governor-General’s National War Fund would use government funding to support families in South Africa and the new Gifts and Comforts Committee would have to raise its own funds from the public to send packages to the soldiers. It was with this change that the First Lady of South Africa, Sybella “Isie” Margaretha Smuts, would take over the Gifts and Comforts committee leadership and lead the Gifts and Comforts Fund. It was the First Lady’s leadership which would make the fund not only successful but world famous to the point where some of the funding raised for South African soldiers came from overseas.

 

Isie Smuts was entering her seventies when the war began and thought herself too old and tired to be of any great help in the war effort. Understanding the magnitude of the war, Isie set her mind to motivating herself and thought back to her experience as a young wife in the South African War (1899-1902). She remembered the suffering of fear and loneliness and knew that the modern resources of the Second World War period made it possible for families left behind to get busy together and provide substantial support from the home front. Isie was also a grandmother and was aware of her value to her grandchildren who admired her and called her “ouma”. She realised that with the strong but calm supportive experience of an ouma that she would be able to provide the leadership that the Gifts and Comforts Fund would need. With the fund needing to raise its own money Isie Smuts could use her position and access to national leadership to make sure that the fund would be successful. Isie Smuts would be an ouma to the tens of thousands of South African soldiers and to the thousands of volunteers working for the fund which became known as the Ouma Gifts and Comforts Fund.

 

The Quartermaster-General had been charged with making sure that the fund would be founded as a co-ordinated network of volunteer groups around the country such that overlapping of work could be avoided, efficiency could be maintained, and soldiers would be sure to receive packages in equal proportions. The Quartermaster-General invited leadership from volunteer groups that had already begun setting themselves up and invited some of the people who had been involved in the Governor-General’s Fund in the First World War. An organisational framework was put together to assure that the Gifts and Comforts Fund did not waste its resources providing equipment that other departments were organising. The framework also found ways to respectfully and productively incorporate the various volunteer groups which had formed through motivations to assist soldiers of specific cultural groupings. This was all organised and confirmed at the inaugural meeting of what was still the Gifts and Comforts Committee in the Pretoria City Hall on 26 April 1940. The first work of the committee was to help with the hasty provision of metal-frame beds at the locations where soldiers were being mustered throughout the country. It was in those first couple of months that the committee found out that it would not be working with government funding, and when the committee met on 29 July 1940, Ouma Smuts was there to become the new chairperson which she remained throughout the war.

 

The fund would deliver the gifts and comforts in boxes and in fabric bags that became known as Glory Bags. The first recommendations for what to put into the Glory Bags included cigarettes, tobacco, pipes, lighters, bootlaces, soaps, razor blades, shaving mirrors, and sunscreen lotion. There was a brief objection from the Quartermaster-General over the inclusion of cigarettes, but the objection was ignored. In fact, one of the first orders the fund placed was with the United Tobacco Company for half a million cigarettes and one thousand pounds of tobacco which would all be despatched directly from the factories to the front wasting no time or resources in the fund’s storage. This continued throughout the war as a standing order. The fund sent what the soldiers wanted, and funding efforts would have to chase whatever cost that would incur. Orders were also placed for entertainments like draughts, dominoes, chess, tenniquoit equipment and table tennis sets. Soldiers began sending requests for more sporting equipment such as soccer balls and boxing gloves and when the fund could not secure donations from unwilling sporting goods companies, they purchased the equipment and shipped it out anyway.

 

The list of items being sent to the soldiers expanded throughout the war, but to give an idea of what the soldiers received, the following list includes most of the examples of items delivered by the end of 1940:

 

Caps, bootlaces, handkerchiefs, mittens, pullovers, scarfs, socks, wristlets, combs, shaving cream, hair clippers, shaving blades, lip balm, insect repellent, penknives, toothpaste, toothbrushes, soaps, swabs, boracic powder, sulphur, camphor, iodine pencils, permanganate of potash, grapine, prayer books, envelopes, pencils, writing pads, biltong, chewing gum, chocolate, sweets, oranges, cigarettes, tobacco, pipes, matches, soccer balls with pumps, soccer boots, darts, dart boards, boxing gloves, cricket clothes and equipment, table tennis sets, playing cards, radios, and harmonicas.

 

Chocolate and cigarette tins (DNMMH collection).

 

 

Various gifts and comforts (DNMMH collection).

 

The Ouma Gifts and Comforts Fund was attended to with such priority for the soldiers’ desires that there were bound to be consistent difficulties with raising adequate funds. This is where Ouma Smuts truly shone. Being the First Lady, Ouma Smuts lived in two official mansions. They were Groote Schuur (Cape Town) and Libertas which is now known as Mahlamba Ndlopfu (Pretoria). It became the official home of the South African head of government in 1940. As one of its first official residents in this capacity, Ouma Smuts converted rooms in both mansions to workspaces where she helped sort, pack and even knit some of the items herself and with volunteers. When she received visitors at the mansions, they would often show up formally dressed excited at the high-profile opportunity to visit the First Lady at home. They would soon feel a little awkward when Ouma Smuts appeared casually dressed and ready for work. She would explain to visitors that they might have time to sneak in a cup of tea at some point, but they would have to get right to work with her helping to prepare packages and knit clothing.

 

When it came to direct fundraising appeals, Ouma Smuts would explain that sending thoughts and well-wishes did not help as much as sending care packages, and that a little help was worth a great deal of pity. She would express that the South African public were able to donate more generously than the public in most Allied countries because South Africa was experiencing no rationing, and being so far from the heaviest fighting, only coastal towns would occasionally have brief periods of electricity interruptions to stay hidden from enemy shipping. When the fund was threatened with bankruptcy Ouma Smuts hastily organised the gold fund initiative. She asked people to send in whatever gold they had in whatever form it was in. The fund was saved from bankruptcy after receiving jewellery, gold bars, and even wedding rings, some of which women had cut from their fingers having kept them on permanently for decades. On each of her birthdays during the war Ouma Smuts would sell the gifts she received, donating the profits to the fund. In Johannesburg she made use of the many theatres to tell crowds that she knew people in Johannesburg had a lot of money and that she wanted that money too, for the fund.

 

By the time the war ended the fund had raised one million Pounds which is the rough equivalent of just under one billion Rand today. On her seventy-fourth birthday, on 22 December 1944, word of her work had spread so far that many of the most well-known artists and celebrities from South Africa, Britain and the USA joined in a fundraising effort that used an international radio broadcast to celebrate her birthday. The broadcast was transmitted through hubs in New York, Hollywood, London, and Johannesburg. USA President Roosevelt sent a personal message as did many celebrities and some sang songs for Ouma Smuts. A couple even learned enough Afrikaans so that they could sing for her in her home language. Celebrities who took part included Gracie Fields, Joan Crawford, Bob Hope, Humphrey Bogart, Noel Coward, Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, John Gielgud, Deanna Durbin, Dorothy Lamour, Nelson Eddy, Eddie Cantor, and Paul Muni. Ouma Smuts had used each of her birthdays during the war as fundraiser events and for her seventy-fourth birthday she had set a lofty goal of raising 150 000 pounds. Such a high total for one event was extremely ambitious but the surprise radio broadcast brought in international support adding 76 000 pounds bringing the total take from that one birthday to 180 000 pounds. That is about 18% of the money the fund raised throughout the war.

 

The legacy of the Ouma Gifts and Comforts Fund lies partly in the fact that many of the items that were sent to the soldiers have become collectables. The fund would later evolve into the Dankie Tannie (Thank you Auntie) parcels organised by the Southern Cross Fund for South African Defence Force (SADF) soldiers in the Border War. Today, over Christmas, parcels of comforts are still sent to South African soldiers who are on peacekeeping missions.

 

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