Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 9, 2020

You Will Be Safe Here, by Damien Barr

Cultural warning: a part of this review uses racial slurs when quoting text from the novel.

***

This is another book that I became aware of through the release of the Adelaide Writers’ Week program.  It’s an ambitious book, with a big story to tell, but the link between its two competing narratives is IMO tenuous.  Both narratives are set in camps which promise to keep their charges safe, and neither of them do. That seems a thin thread to connect them, and I’m a bit bemused by the conflation of the suffering of internees in a concentration camp a century ago with present-day homophobic brutality towards boys struggling with their sexual identity.  However, while one needs to read between the lines, the novel — by being written mainly from the perspective of White South Africans — exposes some attitudes which show that South Africa has a long way to go before being a Rainbow Nation at peace with itself and the world.

Part 1 is the story of the Boer Sarah van der Watt and her treatment at the hands of the British during the Boer War (1899-1902).  It is often said that the British were the first to use concentration camps as a weapon of war, but it’s not actually true.  Wikipedia (lightly edited to remove links and footnotes) tells us otherwise:

Although the first example of civilian internment may date as far back as the 1830s, the English term concentration camp was first used in order to refer to the reconcentrados (reconcentration camps) which were set up by the Spanish military in Cuba during the Ten Years’ War (1868–78), and similar camps were set up by the United States during the Philippine–American War (1899–1902). The term concentration camp saw wider use as the British set up camps during the Second Boer War (1899–1902) in South Africa for interning Boers.

But there is no doubt that the Brits used the brutal internment of civilians including women and children together with a scorched earth policy in their campaign against the Boers. Barr, using the device of a diary written by his character Sarah van der Watt, takes the narrative from her dread of what was coming, to the grim reality of being used as punishment for the military activities of her husband Sam, and to her terror that her small son Fred might die.  The conditions were terrible, and, as in real life, thousands of people died from malnutrition and disease.  In the modern era in South Africa, hostility to British people can be traced to this history of concentration camps during the Second Boer War.

(Abhorrent as this war crime was, it needs to be differentiated from the Holocaust because the intent was not genocidal: it was not intended to exterminate an entire race of innocent people, their religion and their culture.  Concentration camps began in South Africa in response to the introduction of guerrilla warfare by the Boers, and was intended to pressure their fighters to surrender by cutting off their support and breaking their morale. And unlike German public opinion demonstrated by their acquiescence to the persecution, deportation and murder of six millions Jews in World War II, British public opinion deplored the emergence of concentration camps in the Boer War under Lord Kitchener.  There was strong censure by MPs in the British Parliament, notably by David Lloyd George, and opposition to the war itself was stoked by condemnation of these tactics by the British public, due in part to the efforts of Englishwoman Emily Hobhouse who campaigned against the camps.)

Sarah’s diary is used to convey the terrible suffering within the camp.  It is addressed to her husband, and somehow kept, surreptitiously, throughout the internment.  Most readers will, I hope, notice amongst the depiction of the atrocious conditions, the casual and not-so-casual racism against Black South Africans.  Black servants are not differentiated as Zulu or Xhosa or anything else, just labelled by an offensive term.  That is, of course, authentic.  The dismissive attitudes towards their greater suffering are, no doubt, a valid representation of how Afrikaners like Sarah would have spoken and behaved.  She records without a word of compassion that her servant Jakob [was] laid out on the stoep, his hands bound behind his back, rolled to one side so they wouldn’t have to step over him. Lettie is also trussed like Jakob tying a pig and dragged onto the stoep.  Later she notes that at least they were in the shade, though they don’t suffer the sun like us. Even in the camp, Mrs Kriel’s little Kaffir girl sleeps right outside. 

“The final indignity is the Khaki Kaffirs set to spy on us. I grieve to see them turn against the people who gave them shelter and work. We are all sons and daughters of the same soil. It is a sin that will not quickly be forgiven.”

However, in a contemporary novel, one might expect that author acknowledgements or a preface would address the question of representing the racism that undoubtedly occurred, to ensure that readers understand its purpose.  There is a risk that not everyone will recognise the irony in that excerpt, and I think it’s important that they do. I do not know how people in South Africa negotiate discussions about depicting historical authenticity when it uses language and vocabulary that is deeply offensive.  It’s not a matter of political correctness.  It’s a matter of reconciliation.

Part 2 is the story of 16-year-old Willem who suffers appalling treatment at the New Dawn Safari Training Camp which is a proxy for a Far-Right paramilitary camp.  Like Part 1 it is based on a true story, in this case the catalyst for the novel, the murder of a teenager called Raymond Buys at a South African ‘conversion therapy’ camp that promised to ‘turn boys into men’.  The authenticity of Willem’s experiences of being bullied at school and his insensitive step-father’s behaviour perhaps derives in part from Barr’s own experiences as depicted in his memoir Maggie and MeBut Barr expands on this with an association between these boot camps and the white supremacist ideologies spawned by Eugène Terre’Blanche in the wake of the collapse of apartheid.

It bothers me that characters with speaking parts are almost all White.  Perhaps this is where the rhetoric about identity appropriation takes us.  If Barr as a White outsider ought not to speak for the People of Colour in South Africa, then what the reader encounters is IMO distorted.  There are frequent references to the violence of post-apartheid South Africa, all from the point-of-view of white South Africans concerned about the security situation: car-jackings, gang-rapes, farm attacks.   We learn that jobs used to be easy for Whites to get, but Willem’s parents know that he will be competing not just in a multi-racial market for employment, but one with quotas to redress the privilege that White South Africans had enjoyed. Unless he finishes school, his prospects are limited.

Even Willem traces back what happened to him, to the security situation.

Willem remembers the power cuts — long dark hours without the internet, long hot nights without air-conditioning and windows you can’t open, the constant bleep of alarms, the panic buttons by his bed, the razor wire with roses growing through it, the neighbours with the perfect garden they never go in because it’s full of security snakes, according to the sign they had to put up. He’s only in this place now because he got expelled but what happened with Anton only happened because of what he can hardly bear to remember on the minibus.  And that only happened because they couldn’t stop on the road because of what might have happened if they had.  If it had been safe to stop he could have got out and had a piss and that would have been that.  He could have been at home right now. (p.235)

We learn why the school mini-bus couldn’t stop:

The driver knows only too well you don’t stop upcountry, even for cops, especially for cops.  If a cop car flashes you just flash back then drive to the nearest busy place, say a petrol station, and stop there so you have witnesses and CCTV.  If you see a body in the road you drive round it or over it if you have to.  You never slow down to look.  You certainly do not stop a private-school minibus with fifteen white kids and a white lady and a pretty black girl in the middle of nowhere.  (p.196).

Blaming post-apartheid violence (which certainly exists) because a fifteen-year-old boy wet his pants on the bus seems a bit of stretch, eh? Unless one reads between the lines to interpret this as an example of White nostalgia for the securities of apartheid, even amongst young people.

Out of curiosity, I visited the website of the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein which Willem visits with his school group in 2009… and could not help but notice

Anyway…

It is during this museum visit that the reader meets Mthunzi, a teacher-in-training who unlike Mrs de Vries, seems to have no surname or title.  She is belittled by the tour guide, who, when handing out a teaching resource to the group starts with Mrs de Vries then the boys, then the girls, and hands the last to Mthunzi.  Even Vorstadt’s choice of language for instruction provides an opportunity for a putdown:

‘Well, everyone, welcome to the Anglo-Boer War Museum.  I’m Anna Vorstadt, a curator here, and I’ll be taking your tour.  You all have Afrikaans, ja?’ She smiles cleanly at Mthunzi who nods once then turns to Mrs de Vries who chirps ‘Ja’ on behalf of Grade 12. Everybody prepares to tune in to the frequency of the classroom. (p.199)

Language is a particularly complex issue in post-Apartheid South Africa, and this article from 1982 explains the historical Black antipathy towards Afrikaans. Wikipedia (lightly edited to remove footnotes) explains:

South Africa has 11 official languages, and the first year of schooling is provided in all these home languages.
Before 2009, schools serving non-English speakers had to teach English as a subject only from grade 3 and all subjects were taught in English from grade 4 (except in Afrikaans language schools). Since 2009, all schools teach English as a subject from grade 1 and all subjects are taught in English from grade 4. Afrikaans language schools are an exception, in that all subjects (other than other languages) are taught in Afrikaans.

So when it comes to the language of instruction for South African students, the choice is loaded.  The choice is not just about inclusivity and academic success, it impacts on access to higher education within and beyond the country, on opportunities for employment and positions of power, and on the ability to read media in English, the world’s lingua franca and the second most-commonly spoken language in the world (after Chinese).  English, Willem’s mothers ruefully says, is the language of American TV and his books: Willem loves to read Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings.  As we see in his conversation with his soulmate Harry at school, nobody talks Afrikaans unless there’s an adult about, and in the camp — despite the risk of severe punishment — he prefers to speak English with his only friend Geldenhuys.  So his parents’ choice to send him to a privileged Afrikaner school says something about their priorities, and Willem’s preference for English despite his years of schooling in Afrikaans, says something about his.

It is, IMO, unfortunate that one of the few Black South African characters is a crude and vulgar driver who, grabbing his crotch, uses a disgusting acronym to tell Willem’s stepfather what he would like to do to Irma, Willem’s mother.  This episode gives Jan an opportunity to reflect on his National Service days when men like Fumbi were the enemy:

Now a lot of Jan’s old Defence Force mates are in security because people feel safer with a face like their own on the gate.  Jan had considered becoming a cop but couldn’t get used to blacks in uniform.  On the news the other day he’d seen a black judge.  It’s all rigged now.  If you give a white guy a job you have to give a black one too.  (p.177)

Well, Jan is a covert member of the AWB (Afrikaaner Resistance Movement) but even so, in the absence of any commentary to balance it, the author’s choice to voice his opinions and those of other racists makes for disconcerting reading.

You Will Be Safe Here puts the reader in the awkward position of feeling sorry for the White victims represented in the story, while the suffering of black characters is entirely muted.

Alfred Hickling at the Guardian was impressed.

Author: Damien Barr
Title:  You Will Be Safe Here
Cover design by David Mann
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2019
ISBN: 9781408886090, pbk, 327 pages
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond:You Will Be Safe Here

 

 

 


Responses

  1. Barr is Scottish (and a popular figure in London lit circles; he hosts a salon & has a TV show), so I’m intrigued as to why he decided to set his first novel in South Africa. I have a netgalley review copy of this but could never quite bring myself to read it because I was worried that it might not be his story to tell… your review suggests that maybe my concerns were not misplaced

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    • It’s just coincidence, but this very moment, I have just read this article titled ‘Stop Telling Authors What They Can Write, the only limit is imagination’ (see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/09/american-dirt-jeanine-cummins-cultural-appropriation). This novel certainly treads into that territory… as you say, he’s Scottish, he’s a man, he’s White and the British haven’t been in SA since 1962. But he’s also gay, and he identified (if that’s the right word) with Raymond Buys, the boy who died in the camp that promised to ‘make a man of him’. In the Afterword he says that he didn’t want that story to drift away once the headlines lost interest, and so he went to SA to research his novel… and ended up framing it around the British concentration camps.
      My review, I hope, suggested that perhaps it was because he felt he could not tell the Black story because of cultural appropriation issues, that only the White voices are heard, and that is a problem IMO in telling many SA stories because it is a multi-racial and mixed-racial society. Once we start erecting silos around identity it gets too hard to tell complex stories… it was women and children who watched their farmhouses burn and suffered and died in the camps. But no woman has written about this, Black, White, Afrikaner or British (as far as I know). If we say the story can’t be told unless it’s written by the right kind of person, maybe the story never gets told.
      At first I thought, oh no, he’s only talked to nostalgic SA Whites and is regurgitating their values. (I bet you’ve met some of these in Perth. According to The Offspring who lived there for three years, if you haven’t yet, you will). But Barr is a journo, I didn’t think he could really be as crass as that. I think what he’s done is to expose those attitudes without passing judgement on the people who helped him find his way when he was in SA, leaving it up to the reader to join the dots.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmmm, I don’t think this will go on my list of books to be read. I prefer to read your review and accept that I am not up to the challenge.

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    • I would love to be in the audience at the festival – hopefully among all the questions that begin ‘I haven’t read your novel but…’ there will be some that tease out some of the issues here.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, it sounds… complicated, this one. Thank you for your thorough review – it’s not going to be one for me!

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    • Yes, it is, complicated.
      But as I’ve said to Kim in reply to her comment, SA is a complicated place with a complicated society, a complicated past and an even more complicated present. We need people to write about it, in all its messiness.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. And by coincidence, I have a copy on my Kindle to read ‘soon’.

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    • I’ll be interested to see what you make of it:)

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  5. These are challenging times for ‘writers’ and your review highlights how precarious. SA has a complex history and this writer has taken on something difficult. If he has opened the conversation on the horrors of colonialism in all its complexity then that seems a good thing. We need those who are willing to put themselves in the ‘hot seat’ for it’s not easy and can be dangerous for the writer. Am curious too about the juxtaposition of the homophobia and the cruelty of the ‘concentration’ camps. People are mostly timid in IMO and to expose uncomfortable topics takes a certain courage or maybe foolhardiness. As always Lisa your reviews bring another opportunity to pursue these confronting subjects. Thanks.

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    • Yes, I’d always rather read something a bit risky than something safe!

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  6. I unequivocally don’t think it’s the place of white outsiders to write South African stories, and when they choose to do so I think that readers should attach absolutely zero value to them (to the stories) whatever research or fellow feeling has gone into the writing.

    I really appreciate your analysis of the racism this book both discusses and implies. I think in this age when for so long the dominant voice has been white, that white authors should write white protagonists who move among people of colour and report what they hear them saying but without attempting to speak for them.

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    • Well, as I’ve said before, I think we have to agree to disagree about who has your permission to write stories!

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      • I’m not sure I can add anything more to this conversation – but I’ve found it interesting. As you and Bill know, I am more on your side of the fence, with some provisos. Overall, I don’t think writers should be told what to write, but I think there are some circumstances more than others in which they’d be wise to reflect on what they write and how they write it. I will be discussing this issue in a review very soon!

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