Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1943

These anti-terror powers are about controlling dissent

This article is over 17 years, 3 months old
Plans for house arrests are an assalt on our freedoms and reminiscent of apartheid South Africa, says Gillian Slovo
Issue 1943
illustration by Tim Sanders
illustration by Tim Sanders

There were many telling moments after South Africa’s first democratic election. I’d like to touch on one which I think is relevant to the changes being made to our country’s law.

Some senior British policemen had been sent to help train up the new South African police force. They pitched up just in time to be witness to the botched investigation of a series of rapes that were taking place in Johannesburg.

The rapist, who was terrorising women in the inner city area of Hillbrow, was active almost every night, restricting his rapes to an area of about one mile.

To a British-trained policeman, this was an easy case—all the police had to do was to stake out the area and they would soon catch their man. Yet night after night the South African police messed up and more women were raped.

The reason it had come to that is that the job of a South African policeman had been not to detect crime or catch wrongdoers, but to do what politicans, rather than the laws, told them to do.

Ordinary policemen became political—arresting and even shooting on the merest hint of suspicion, acting on gossip, rumour, prejudice and accident of association, imprisoning without recourse to the law, lurking in the shadows, trying to endorse a whole gamut of laws that restricted individual freedom.

When the British government first intimated that they were going to use the power of house arrest, they told us that without it the police would not be able to keep a close enough watch on suspected terrorists. But South Africa proves that, on the contrary, control orders like the ones suggested, require active policing in order to make sure that they are obeyed.

My childhood in South Africa is full of memories of what the police had to do in this regard—from midnight raids to check that the house-arrested were still in bed, or that those banned from associating with others were really on their own.

Put control orders into practice and that is what will inevitably happen. The police will become politicised. There are other pitfalls for our democracy. Under apartheid politicisation of the law went hand in hand with the gutting of the judiciary. In the 1950s, judges resisted apartheid’s diktats.

By the 1970s and 1980s they just acted as rubber stamps. This is why I am not reassured when the government offers that judges rather than politicans should give authority for control orders.

We must remember that many of the recent British miscarriages of justice, including the Guildford Four, happened with the full connivance of the judiciary.

In apartheid South Africa, evidence wasn’t needed to condemn. How can we, who made our own contribution to the annihilation of apartheid, allow this thing to happen here?

How, after the weapons of mass destruction that didn’t turn out to exist, can we feel sanguine about the intelligence community whispering in the ears of our politicians? The result will be the restriction of the freedom of British citizens and residents alike.

These control orders are going to be used, in the first instance, against a particular community—those who are Muslims. I lived my childhood amongst people banned and house-arrested. I know what it is like to feel that stigma.

Since then, I have, in compiling our play on Guantanamo, gone to visit the families of people who have been held there.

My shock was not just about their isolation from non-Muslims, but the fact that some of them said that they had not had any support from their own mosques.

They knew that even though they were not the accused themselves, their neighbours and fellow mosque-goers were frightened about being found guilty by association with them. That’s what happens when you treat some people so differently. You set them aside from others.

If you do this not only to people who may or may not be guilty, but to a whole community, how can you not expect this action to radicalise, disaffect and generally anger that community?

We are told that the war against terror should also be a war for hearts and minds. But hearts and minds are not won by repressive legislation. Use enough informers, enough brute force, and proscribe enough people’s lives, and you can feel that you are controlling resistance.

We have a number of tried and tested laws in this country. Pandering to hysteria about what the terrorists might do to us, and instituting a new system of control orders is to give them the upper hand.

I spent three years, when I was writing a novel set in the Soviet Union, reading about tyranny. One of the things that puzzled me was why those old Bolsheviks allowed Stalin to commit a mass murder that ended in their own annihilation. Their responsibility was a failure to speak up when they saw those ideals in which they believed being systematically annihilated. By the time Stalin’s men came for them it was too late.

Let’s not make the same mistake. If we care about our democracy, if we care about resisting terror, then we need to defend our democratic freedoms.

Gillian Slovo’s recent works include Ice Road and Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom (with Victoria Brittain). This article is taken from a speech she gave at a recent Campaign Against Criminalising Communities meeting. Go to

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