Above: Raymond Buys died after being starved, beaten, burned with cigarettes, and electrocuted at a South African camp promising to turn gay, bi, and effeminiate teens into “manly” straight men. He was the third Afrikaner boy to die at the same camp. His death inspired Damien Barr’s new book.
In 2011, a 15-year-old gay South African boy died after being electrocuted, starved, forced to eat feces, beaten with wooden planks, having his bones broken, and left chained to his bed at Echo Wild Game Rangers, a camp that promised to make manly men out of effeminate boys. The story of Raymond Buys’s murder mortified LGBTQ people around the globe. One of those disturbed by it was Damian Barr, the gay British author of the award-winning memoir Maggie and Me.
Buys’s death drove Barr to visit South Africa and investigate these camps with the idea that he’d write an article or a series of articles about them. But, he says now, “I quickly began to realize that actually, in order to tell the ‘truth,’ I was going to have to make stuff up. And as a journalist, that didn’t sit easily with me at all, so obviously the answer was then to write a novel.”
His research informed a central part of Barr’s fictional account, You Will Be Safe Here, a multigenerational story set in South Africa that parallels abuses of modern day camps with those endured by Afrikaner women and children imprisoned by the British in concentration camps during The South African Boer War (1899-1902). Neither set of camps kept their promise to keep their charges safe.
“I felt ashamed a lot of the time that I was doing the research for this,” Barr admits, talking about uncovering the abuses of his country during that period. He argues that in the Boer War, Britain used scorched-Earth tactics and created the world’s first concentration camps. “I was horrified by… [the] state-funded, state-sanctioned, wholesale imprisonment of non-enemy combatants, based on who they are, not what they’ve done. And consciously underfunded. It was appalling, actually.”
The author says he now wants “to shed a light into these very dark corners. And I hope that by doing that, by just kind of airing them, that we can actually articulate some of the experiences that have been denied by history.” In doing so, Barr hopes we can stop history from repeating itself.
“What we see in the present-day camps for these boys that don’t fit in, is a repeat of history… perhaps if we understand and allow people to articulate the pain of the past, we can stop it from carrying forward so much into the present.”
Barr sees the birth of apartheid as stemming directly from the Boer War and the concentration camps, where the British employed Black guards to oversee the white prisoners. Apartheid, he says, was a system to ensure that such power imbalances could never happen again.
Although he’s speaking about white South Africans, there are moments in conversation where Barr could just as easily be describing a certain portion of the American populace, as when he says, “They are genuinely afraid that they are going to be made extinct by some race war that doesn’t exist, that isn’t happening. They are terrified. And until we can understand the fears of these people…there’s going to be no peace.”
Those fears are a part of what still motivates white South African parents to send their sons to camps that promise to armor boys with the physical and emotional strength to defend themselves in a violent world.
They believe “this society is dangerous,” Barr says. “It’s brutal and they want [their boys] to be able to defend themselves, first of all.”
The author interviewed some of these parents. “Don’t forget, these boys have been sent to a place where parents are [also] being told [the boys] are being trained to be able to work as safari guides. So a big part of this is economic.”
White men, he explains, used to find work easily in South Africa, before apartheid ended. Now the white middle class is shrinking and there’s a growing population of whites “who are very poor, and very resentful.”
But of course, economics and racial fears aren’t the only forces at work in driving the existence of these boys’ camps (which still operate in the country today), and the machinations that have turned them deadly in multiple instances.
“It was really clear to me that whether or not the boys who were murdered in these camps were gay, they were certainly victims of homophobic violence,” Barr says. “Because they were perceived as being gay. Because they didn’t care about sports, or they were interested in books, or they were effeminate, or, in some instances, they had learning difficulties. They just didn’t fit the idealized notion of South African boyhood and therefore they had to be punished, they had to be controlled, they had to be made to change.”
And if they couldn’t change, they had to die. “You get boys to police each other and it becomes a toxic system of toxic masculinity.”
Barr experienced the very real threat that the men who run these camps still wield in their communities. While researching You Will Be Safe, he visited the camp where Raymond Buys was murdered. There, he says, “I was faced with these men with guns. And in that moment, I just thought, you know, It’s really clear they want to kill me and that they want to kill the man I’m with, who is Black. And there was a calculation being made that you could see, which was that they probably couldn’t kill me because I was white, but they probably could kill the man that I was with because he was Black. My responsibility in that situation was to try and make them see him as a person that they could not dispose of. And it was absolutely terrifying. I kept using his name, I talked about the fact that he had a family.… It was just a chilling situation to be in, and that’s the reality of South Africa for a lot of people.”
That these are some of the very people Barr attempts to humanize by examining their (multigenerational) motivations in his novel is not lost on him, but he believes, “if you just dismiss people as evil, you give them a free pass.”