“Powerful and tragic” – You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

Like many countries colonised by Europeans over the centuries, South Africa has a distressing history of entitlement leading to brutality. A population of disparate groups evolves, with each believing the land is rightfully theirs. War and political change lead to festering resentments passed down through generations. Inculcated prejudices can result in the dehumanisation of those considered other for a variety of reasons.

You Will Be Safe Here explores a number of such prejudices. It opens with a short prologue that introduces sixteen year old Willem Brandt as he is taken to a New Dawn Camp by his mother and her fiancé. They hope that the military style training regime will fix Willem, turning him into what they regard as a normal man.

The story then jumps back from 2010 to 1901. Written in the form of a diary, this section covers a month in the life of Sarah van der Watt whose husband is away fighting with Afrikaner commandos in the Second Boer War. The British army are trying to crush resistance to their occupation by rounding up Afrikaner families along with their slaves. Possessions are sifted through and confiscated before homes are burned to the ground. The people are loaded into trains and taken to segregated camps – the population thereby concentrated and contained. Knowing what is about to happen, Sarah and her six year old son, Fred, are preparing to leave the farm they have wrested from the veld.

Sarah is asked by the British soldiers to sign an oath of neutrality. In refusing she condemns herself to live in conditions that grow ever harsher. She will come to pay a heavy price for what she regards as necessary loyalty.

“I hate the Khakis but hand-uppers disgust me because they surrendered, they gave up the land we fought the Zulu for at Blood River. God cannot grant their prayers.”

The irony of her actions – that she considers the country that her forebears took and then cultivated with slave labour to be rightfully hers – doesn’t cross her mind.

Sarah’s diary offers a picture of day to day life in the camp. It is a stark portrayal of starvation, disease and death. The British may not have actively murdered their prisoners but in Bloemfontein they did as little as they could get away with to keep them alive. Over the course of this war, more civilians died in the British concentration camps than soldiers on the battlefield.

The second section of the story is set in Johannesburg, starting in 1976 when sixteen year old Rayna is assaulted on her way home from school and falls pregnant. In an attempt to avoid a scandal she quickly marries. The union is not a success and her husband leaves to work in the northern diamond mines. Financially supported and mostly left alone, Rayna quietly shuns societal conventions. Leaving her son with the home help, she finds work and then has a second child.

The timeline moves forward through the decades during which Rayna becomes a grandmother and the political situation in South Africa alters in ways she struggles to accept. There is a perception of encroaching violence resulting in the white population living behind walls and installing increasingly high tech security.

Meanwhile, the Afrikaner children choose to speak English when together – the language of their parents now associated with school.

The story enables the reader to better understand the differing backgrounds of contemporary white South Africans. Prejudices portrayed are not just based on race. The penultimate section, detailing Willem’s time at the New Dawn Camp, is a chilling indictment of homophobia. It also serves to pull each strand of the tale together.

The writing is deft and compelling, illuminating a terrible history with quiet competence and humanity. Despite their flawed thinking, their skewed sense of the ‘natural order’, the characters are presented with a degree of sympathy – as the product of a blinkered heritage.

The author writes:

“The Boer Wars (1880-81 and 1899-1902) are no longer taught in British or South African schools. They are now almost fondly remembered as a great Victorian adventure, the stuff of Boy’s Own stories.”

“Camps like New Dawn still operate across South Africa. They are for white boys only and run by former soldiers […] who believe that one day white South Africa will rise again and finally right the historic wrongs of the Boer Wars.”

Any Cop?: It is horrifying to consider the cruelties so casually meted out in camps set centuries apart. Based on actual events, this story is both powerful and tragic. It offers a vital lesson in where prejudice can lead.

 

Jackie Law

One comment

  1. I had been thinking about trying this book after I read a positive review of it in The Guardian at the start of this week. I’d just not been sure about the subject and whether or not it would be for me – but I think I’ll definitely have a go at this now.

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