A South African game-ranger training camp leader is on trial for murder after allegedly starving, burning and electrocuting a 15-year-old boy with learning difficulties.
Alex de Koker, now 49, a self-styled “general” with links to white supremacist groups, and Echo Wild Game Rangers staffer Michael Erasmus, 20, are facing charges in Vereeniging District Court of murder, child abuse and neglect, and two cases of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm.
Koker charged parents R22,000 (approximately $2,451 as of May 1, 2013,) to take their effeminate or troubled teenage boys and turn them into “men” at his Echo Wild Game Rangers camp, housed on land owned by Koker in Swartruggens, an hour south of Johannesburg.
Raymond Buys, the boy in question, entered the program in 2011 in perfect physical health.
He was two months into the 10 week camp program when he was admitted to a Vereeniging hospital. By then, Buys was painfully thin and severely dehydrated, doctors found evidence of brain damage, he had a broken arm and displayed bruising and cigarette burns up and down his body. Doctors told Buys’ mother that her son’s chances of recovery were “virtually zero” and, two weeks later, he died after being taken off life support.
Mrs Buys says she had hoped de Koker’s training camp could, as billed, help her son find a job in the wildlife trade and that it would help Jonathan, who had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and had reportedly left school after struggling in that environment, to have greater prospects in life.
“I sent my son on this course to make him a better man, to give him a better future,” said Wilma Buys to The Telegraph. “I trusted Alex de Koker with his life.”
What de Koker and staff did to Raymond, if witness testimony is proved accurate, is nothing less than torture.
The Torture of Raymond Buys: Forced to Eat His Own Feces, Electrocuted and Beaten
Gerhard Oosthuizen, 19, shared a tent with Buys at the camp. He told the Vereeniging District Court that Buys was physically weaker than many of the other boys and therefore was not able to perform many of the tasks, such as manual labor and military style training, that were asked of him. For this, he frequently earned punishments from the camp’s staff.
Oosthuizen told the court during an April hearing that Raymond Buys was chained to his bed every night after attempting to escape the camp. During that time, Oosthuizen claims, Buys was forbidden from going to the bathroom and as a result repeatedly soiled himself.
Oosthuizen also testified regarding one incident where Buys, after relieving himself in a field while — and I will borrow the phrase the Telegraph uses — “the recruits worked,” Buys was then made to eat his own feces.
On another occasion, Buys tipped over a washing powder container. Oosthuizen claims Buys was then made to eat the washing powder, reportedly vomiting foam as a result.
In his court testimony, Oosthuizen detailed how Buys was frequently beaten with various implements, including planks of wood, rods and plastic piping. He also recounted one occasion where de Koker and Erasmus allegedly strapped Buys to a chair, naked and with a pillowcase over his head, and electrocuted him with a stun gun, eliciting screams.
In addition to these claims, Wilma Buys says that she was denied access to and contact with her son. In fact de Koker, she claims, only allowed her three phone conversations with Raymond during the whole time he was at the camp, all of which had to be conducted on speakerphone.
It was, case details suggest, a matter of camp policy to turn over any mobile phones upon entry into the program. During a six week period of almost no communication, de Koker appeared to try to assuage Wilma Buys’ fears by sending her a picture of her son. He looked thin. A second picture and Wilma Buys believed Raymond looked emaciated.
Reports say she phoned de Koker and demanded to know what was happening. Mr de Koker claimed that Raymond was injuring himself.
In what appears to be a subsequent and monitored phone conversation, Wilma Buys asked her son why he would do such a thing, to which Raymond is said to have responded, “Mum, I’m not doing it to myself.”
Only a few days later, Buys received a call from de Koker in which she was told Raymond had been admitted to the hospital for tests. Wilma Buys reached the hospital to find that her son was close to dying.
As Buys would learn when she was contacted by the parents of another deceased child, this was not the first time de Koker and his staff faced accusations of murder.
Two Other Teens Died at Echo Wild Game Rangers Camps
Erich Calitz, 18 years old at the time he attended one of de Koker’s camps, died in 2007 from what was later revealed to be serious brain injuries. Nicolaas van der Walt, a 19-year-old, also died that same year at the camp.
A subsequent trial surrounding Calitz and van der Walt’s death heard that Calitz had wanted to quit the camp. Mr de Koker reportedly acted violently and is quoted as telling Calitz he “wasn’t a moffie” a slang-term that carries many of the same connotations as the term “faggot,” and that “he [de Koker] would make a man out of him.”
Calitz’s family were first told by a phone text message that their son had died of a heart attack. This story would change over the next few weeks as they were told first a seizure was responsible, and later that Calitz’ death was a result of dehydration.
Only later was it revealed that bleeding on the brain, often though not necessarily the result of a repeated and sustained assault, had been the cause of Calitz’s demise.
Mr Calitz’s story bears a striking similarity to Buys’ death, with his sister Methilda Groenwald reportedly telling the Johannesburg Star newspaper that, before he was sent to the camp, her brother had slight brain-damage and had struggled to hold down jobs. It emerged that Calitz had been “lured” into attending the camp by their brother who worked as an instructor at the camp.
Far from finding care and help there, “He was hit, burnt and wounded,” Groenewald is quoted as saying of Calitz’s injuries during a subsequent trial. “It’s beyond sick — it’s psychopathic.”
In 2009, de Koker was given only a suspended sentence over Calitz’s death, and he dodged charges entirely for Mr. van der Walt’s death which, despite evidence van der Walt had been choked with a seatbelt, was labeled on the official police record as a heart attack.
A separate inquiry was launched into how Calitz’s death was also originally declared as “natural,” something that appears to be ongoing. It is unclear at this time whether Buys’ case will lead to renewed investigation into the Calitz and van der Walt deaths.
Alex de Koker’s Manliness Camps: A Right Wing Training Camp?
Details surrounding the Echo Wild Game Rangers camps’ exact nature are still a matter for police investigation, but at the time of the Calitz trial, it was understood that around 13 people were involved in the day to day running of the camp. The nature of the camp, too, has been the subject of scrutiny.
During the 2007 investigation and trial surrounding Calitz’s death, police Director Sally de Beer was quoted as saying that the camps’ training regimen appeared much removed from what had been promoted, noting, “It is suspected that the paramilitary-style training presented on this course was not normal ranger training and this forms a key part of the investigation.”
Indeed, another report notes de Koker and staff used military rank titles when addressing each other and that skills like leopard crawling, a military-specific crawl, and endurance running and walking were staples of the plan.
Alex de Koker’s links to The Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) are well documented, with Koker reportedly having been closely associated with murdered white supremacist Eugene Terreblanche.
The AWB, and its political arm The Iron Guard, is a far right “resistance” group that, along with other right-wing groups, preach a creed that they as white farm owners must arm and train themselves for the day when black South Africans attempt to take over their land.
The Daily Maverick notes the following interesting overview of de Koker and his place in the AWB’s affiliated groups:
De Koker styles himself as a “general” in an organisation called “X-MilitereLeiers” (X-Military Leaders), judging from a press release sent out in September 2011, following the arrest of De Koker for the murder of Buys. In it, De Koker is described as providing “crucial services to protect the Farmers Community (Caucasian and non-white) in South Africa”. The statement also accuses the SAPS of using the murder charge as a “senseless smoke screen” in order to “try and obtain information of the farming community’s activities and self-defence projects regarding their farms”. In particular, it references the police’s confiscation of a photo taken showing De Koker with deceased AWB leader Eugene Terreblanche.
Mr. de Koker has denied that the camp programs he runs, and has run since 2006, are training camps for the AWB.
As a matter of interest, pictures of the kinds of “training” being used at AWB camps appear in The Afrikaner Journal. While no evidence yet links the two directly, these pictures provide striking similarities to some of the conditions and “paramilitary” training regimens described in the Calitz and Buys cases.
Targeting Gays and Gender Conformity
Contrary to some reports, none of the teens involved in this story openly identified as gay, though certainly they were perceived that way.
Melanie Nathan, an international human rights advocate known for her LGBTQI asylum work and her fight against corrective rape in South Africa, has suggested in her continuing coverage of this story the case may amount to a hate crime based on a potentially lethal prejudice such groups hold against gay people.
The so-called Iron Guards’ philosophy, Nathan notes, includes a staunch view of gender boundaries where effeminacy and being gay are thought of as synonyms, and for that reason both are not tolerated.
As Nathan explains, there is an interest now in seeing how deep this particular thread of the story runs as the case continues to unfold, to see if it can be established that Iron Guard-affiliated groups are willfully harming gay, or perceived to be gay, teenagers.
Camp Leader Claims a Conspiracy is Afoot
Mr. de Koker has said that the charges against him are part of a conspiracy. He also disputes Wilma Buys’ version of events.
A statement released by de Koker’s X-Military Leaders in 2011, a copy of which can be found here at post 130, alleges that Raymond Buys was “cast away due to his rebellious nature,” by his mother and her boyfriend and that they were willing “to pay thousands of rand just to be rid of him.”
It also suggests that camp officials attempted to talk with Wilma Buys about her son’s so-called “behavioral defects,” but they were unsuccessful. The statement goes on to make a number of claims that the authorities have an ulterior motive for arresting de Koker and that the criminal investigation has been biased and has ignored facts — though no evidence for this is provided.
As to Raymond’s injuries, the 2011 statement mentioned above alleges that “The young man [Raymond Buys] had a Stroke [sic] under the supervision of the Leader who actually rushed him to hospital.”
This would in no way account for Buys’ incredibly poor and emaciated condition, his broken arm or burn wounds, and such claims did not appear to mollify the court during the 2011 bail hearing in this case. It is unlikely to do so now.
Both Mr. de Koker and Mr. Erasmus have pled not guilty to the charges.
Unanswered Questions in the Raymond Buys Case
The Raymond Buys murder trial has been suspended until later in May and Mr. de Koker and Mr. Erasmus remain in custody. A number of unanswered questions remain, however, including why de Koker’s sentence in the Calinz case was so lenient, why the van der Walt case was ruled a natural death despite evidence of foul play, and crucially, why Alex de Koker was allowed to keep running his camps even when police seemed to suspect they were little more than white supremacist training groups.
And last, the largest question of them all, whether Raymond Buy’s life could have been saved had action been taken sooner.
Image credit: Thinkstock.