Mandela Day 2021: Online Exhibition

Mandela Day 2021: Online Exhibition

Mandela Day celebrates the life and deeds of Old President Nelson Mandela. Mr. Mandela was the first democratic president of South Africa, and had done much for reconciliation in the country. With 18 July being Mr. Mandela’s birthday, it was decided that it will be known as Mandela Day. This day was created to further the values of Mr. Mandela: fighting injustice, helping people in need and practicing reconciliation.

During the Anglo-Boer (South African) War, concentration camps were created to house the Boer as well as Black women and children. These camps were not run efficiently which resulted in difficult circumstances for the women and children. Food was scarce and of bad quality, clothing had to be bought and soap was listed as a “luxury” and was therefore not given to the women and also had to be bought by the women.

Emily Hobhouse, a British philanthropist, heard about the plight of these women and children. She and many of her friends and family were opposed to the war in South Africa. She had become involved with the South African Conciliation Committee, where she became the secretary of the women’s branch. She organised protests against the war and also spoke at some of the women’s meetings. As reports from various sources highlighted the plight of the women and children in the concentration camps, she established the South African Women and Children’s Distress Fund to raise money and donations to help relieve the deteriorating situation in the camps. By December 1900 she decided to travel to South Africa, where she would not only hand out donations, but also assess the camps, so as to report back to the committee about her findings and where more help was needed. Hobhouse travelled alone, unchaperoned, which was against social conventions for a woman during the time. She arrived in Cape Town on 27 December 1900 and she was determent to visit as many camps as she was allowed. She was granted military permission to visit a limited amount of camps, because in the beginning of the war, the Military authorities were placed in charge of the camps.

Her intention of visiting the camps was not only to distribute the goods donated by the Fund, but also to assess the situation so that she could give first hand feedback on the camps to the public back in England. She also made notes during her travels so that she could report back to the committee of the South African Women and Children’s Distress Fund. Clothing and material were one of the main concerns, as well as the limited availability of soap and enough food. The Government did distribute material in the camps but it was not nearly enough for the amount of people who needed it and therefore it had to be supplemented with donations.

When Hobhouse was settled in Cape Town she started getting ready to travel to the camps. The donations that she brought with her from England would be distributed as her journey progressed. She received a train truck that could carry 12 tons and she decided to fill it with £200 worth of groceries (food etc.) and the rest with bales of clothing. The first camp she visited was the Bloemfontein camp. She arrived on 26 January and commented that the camp was about 2 miles outside of town and the location did not include any trees or shade. It was summer in South Africa and the heat she experienced was unbearable. The air inside the tents were suffocating because of the heat outside and space in the tents was very cramped as well with no space for a chair or table. Flies swarmed the poor inhabitants of the tents and Hobhouse mentioned that they “lay thick and black on everything.”

While Hobhouse was in the camp she spoke to the women about their experiences in the camps. The women did not complain about their own conditions because they were trying to be resilient, but they were adamant that the conditions were detrimental to their children, with many children becoming very ill in the camps. Hobhouse called the camp system “a wholesale cruelty.” She mentioned that many women were extremely poor with no money to their name, especially after the scorched earth. She declared that the British public must be made aware of these women’s plight so that they could support them either by taxation or by “voluntary charity.”

Food was another priority in the camps. Rations were in place so families sometimes did not have enough to feed themselves. Hobhouse reported on the ration quantities:
“Now I must tell you their rations –
Daily – Meat ½ pound (with bone and fat)
Coffee, 2 ounces
Wholemeal, ¾ pound
Condensed milk, one-twelfth of [a] tin
Sugar, 2 ounces
Salt, ½ ounce”

The rations did not include soap, and Hobhouse mentioned that it was also unattainable. She did mention that after much persuasion, soap was occasionally given in limited quantities, but not enough for personal and clothes washing. The effects of the camps on children concerned Hobhouse very much and she wrote that “I can’t describe what it is to see the children lying in a state of collapse. Its just exactly like faded flowers thrown away. And one has to stand and look on at such misery and be able to do almost nothing.”

Hobhouse kept thorough notes on each camp she visited. She notes time and time again that the need for clothing in all the camps were high, especially for the growing children. Because many women came to the camps with new born babies or gave birth in the camps, the baby clothing that Hobhouse distributed was much needed. Many women had brought their sewing machines with them to the camps, but fabric and thread was expensive, so women needed donations to make their own clothes. She wrote that “a few bare women had made petticoats out of brown rough blankets – one had on man’s trousers. Nearly all the children have nothing left but a worn printed frock, with nothing beneath it, and shoes and socks long since worn away.” Hobhouse also noted that the blouses sent from England fitted 12-14-year-old girls and that the “well-developed” Boer women were in need of larger sizes, preferable in darker colours.” There was also a need for boys clothing, since many of the donated clothes were for women and girls. While visiting the camps Hobhouse created clothing committees consisting out of women she had met in the camps. They would receive the donations sent to the camps from the Fund and distribute it to those in need.

Hobhouse is sometimes criticized that she did not visit the black concentration camps, but she did mention their plight in the same report as that of the white concentration camps. She wrote “I do wish someone would come out and take up the question of the Native Camps. From odd bits I hear it would seem to be much needed” and “The Committee should notice the existence also of large Camps of natives… [where] sickness and death abound.” She also asked the Fawcett Ladies Commission, who was sent to South Africa by the British Government to investigate her concentration camp findings, to please visit the black concentration camps to assess the situation there as well.

Hobhouse wrote in her report to the Committee that their donations had made a small (small because there was just so many in need) change to the lives of the women and children: “I think your fund has saved and strengthened many children.” Hobhouse decided to return to England earlier than she had planned, because of the great need there was in the camps, and also because she felt that she needed to bring the real and detailed facts of the camps under the attentions of the people of England, so that they could realise the need and donate more to the South African Women and Children’s Distress Fund.

After Hobhouse returned to England she brought her report and findings under the attention of the government authorities. The authorities felt that Hobhouse was being overdramatic, and decided to send their own, government sanctioned Ladies Committee, under the leadership of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, to South Africa to investigate the claims made by Hobhouse. It is apparent that even though they did not have the sympathies towards the women that Hobhouse had, they too found that the camps were not well managed. Lord Milner wrote that the Committee “point[ed] to inadequacy, in many, or all, of the camps, in the following important particulars.” The particulars he was talking about included food, supply of tents, the scarcity of fuel; not enough boilers and lastly “want of fresh clothing, especially underclothing.”

In Hobhouse’s later reports, the need for clothing stayed high throughout the time the camps were functioning. As the war dragged on, even families in towns were struggling and Hobhouse instructed the Cape Town committee to devote some of the clothing to these families.

Emily Hobhouse is an example of someone who saw beyond people’s nationality. She was concerned for the welfare of the South African women and children, even though they were technically seen as “the enemy.” She also physically helped by organising the creation of the fund and even went to the camps herself to set up the smaller clothing committees and to experience first hand the dire situation in the camps. Therefore, on Mandela Day, we honour Emily Hobhouse as a lady who put the welfare of others she did not even know, above her own, and helped as far as she could to create better circumstances for the women and children in the camps.

For further reading see the following titles:
Emily Hobhouse – Beloved Traitor by Elsabe Brits
Emily Hobhouse’s ‘Boer-War Letters’ by Rykie Van Reenen
To Love One’s Enemies by Jennifer Hobhouse Balme

Hobhouse, E.: Report of a Visit to the Camps of Women and Children in the Cape and Orange River Colonies
Pamphlet: The Boer Women and Children Clothing Fund – Third Report of the Committee
Hobhouse, E.: War Without Glamour: Or, Women’s War Experiences Written by Themselves 1899-1902
Hobhouse, E.: The Brunt of the War and Where It Fell

The Museum is proud to announce that a new independent shop, the Hospice Bloemfontein Charity Shop, will be opening its doors on the Museum grounds, next to the Museum Restaurant. The shop will be independently run, but will work with the Museum for our community outreach programmes. The Restaurant will be open for take-aways and sit-down (whenever Covid-19 regulations allow) for a nice cup of coffee and something to eat. The shop is open to the public and will also be involved in a welfare capacity in the community. Donation for the shop will also be appreciated, and the owner of the shop can be contacted in relation to this. New craft skill classes will also be available, so for more information, keep an eye on their social media page. The Museum invites all to support the shop because whether through donations or buying, you will bring change in the lives of people in need. So, come and enjoy a take-away coffee and browse the lovely items and products for sale.

Follow them on Facebook: Hospice Bloemfontein Charity Shop
To contact:
Hospice Shop: Phoebe Pretorius – 073 196 7695
Restaurant: Jacques Nortje – 084 502 9971


Emily Hobhouse, British Philanthropist.
Source: Museum Photo Collection


Women handing out material in the camp

Women handing out material in the camp.
Source: Museum Photo Collection


Soup kitchen in the Bloemfontein camp

Soup kitchen in the Bloemfontein camp.
Source: Museum Photo Collection


Women and Children in a camp

Women and Children in a camp.
Source: Museum Photo Collection


Posted: 2021-07-16 22:45:36