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The nine hippies of Tarnac

4 January 2009
The face of big government just got uglier.
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Police in the remote village of Tarnac

Balaclava-clad police swooped on the remote village of Tarnac at dawn and arrested four men and five women, aged 22 to 34, over terrorist claims. Photograph: Thierry Zoccolan/AFP/Getty Images

the French government claims that Tarnac and its small shop are the headquarters of a dangerous cell of anarchist terrorists plotting to overthrow the state. Images of balaclava-clad police swooping to arrest suspects in Tarnac were compared by bewildered villagers to a strange, rural action movie. The government hinted that locals were too gormless to have noticed the terrorist activity in their midst. But after weeks of controversy, supporters are rising up to defend the young people of the village.
Known as the Tarnac Nine, four men and five women aged 22 to 34 are being investigated over far-left terrorism following dawn raids by police in November that targeted several addresses, including a farm with a few goats, chickens and vegetables.
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Hat-tip to James Highham of nourishing obscurity: [so it begins] the slide to … what? who quoted this comment:

And as the nine hippies of Tarnac are finding, one doesn’t actually have to pose a real threat to the State – it’s enough for the paranoid and weak central State to believe that you might.

And that is exactly what Liberals in South Africa found in the 1950s and 1960s, and they were no strangers to arbitrary action from the paranoid state.

When I matriculated at Durham University in Britain in 1966 I was wearing a badge that read “I am an enemy of the state”. And some upper-class Tory twit said “Why?” “I don’t know,” I replied. And he said “I suppose that’s as much of an answer as one can expect nowadays.” I said no more, because his comment was true, but I suspected the different ways in which we understood it showed how unbridgeable the communication gap was. I suspect that to him it meant that these scruffy hippies are always protesting, and don’t know why they are protesting.

The reality, of course, was that the National Party regime in South Africa declared that liberals were enemies of the state, and banned them, detained them without trial and more. There was no appeal to the courts against such arbitrary state action. And if anyone asked why, the answer was invariably that the Minister of Justice was not obliged to give any reasons for his actions in terms of the relevant Acts. “The Minister in his wisdom sees fit” was the answer Nat politicians gave to questions about that, and that was deemed to be a sufficient answer. So why was I an enemy of the state? I didn’t know, because the Minister was not obliged to say why. The Minister was not accountable. Parliament had given him a free hand.

I know now, though, because the files with the correspondence between the Security Police and the Minister are now available for inspection in the archives, from which I know that I was Enemy of the State number 1628. And some of the minister’s reasoning can be discerned in the correspondence. In my case what pissed him off most was my criticism of the banning orders of two Christians (Dennis Brutus and Elliot Mngadi) that restricted them from attending church services, and I said (in an article in a Christian student magazine called Khanya) that this showed that the government’s claim to be defending “Western Christian Civilization” was pretty hollow. The response of B.J. Vorster, the Minister of Justice, to that was rather petulant and vindictive.

I mention that to show that I can sympathise with the nine hippies of Tarnac, having known others who have suffered similar arbitrary state action (though I have to admit that Warrant Officer van Rensburg of the Pietermaritzburg SB didn’t wear one of those dinky Darth Vader outfits shown in the picture above).

What is interesting about this, however, is that now it’s not just liberals that are concerned about it. The upper-class Tory twit who accosted me 40 years ago is not so common nowadays. Even some conservatives are becoming liberal about basic human rights (though in America they paradoxically accuse liberals of advocating big government).

And one finds more and more comments like this one from The Great Simpleton � Now hippies are being arrested on suspicion of terrorism:

If this is how the state is going to use the laws it gives itself in the name of protecting us then I am more scared of the state than any terrorist. A terrorist attack is impersonal and a random act that I may get caught in, but when the state acts like this it is personal. When the state assumes I am up to no good because I don’t carry a mobile phone or refuse to carry an ID card and justify why I am in a location I am very scared.

Again, it sounds very familiar, reminiscent of the pass laws in the old South Africa (and internal passports in the Soviet Union). That is what “enemies of the state” in South Africa were saying 40 years ago. And now people are saying these things about the “democracies” of Western Europe.

Perhaps one of the surest signs that Britain is becoming a fascist state was the response of the media to a group of Labour Party MPs who would not vote for Tony Blair’s attempt to introduce 90-day detention, and the media said, tongue decidedly not in cheek, that Tony Blair was occupying the “moral high ground”. They certainly didn’t say that of B.J. Vorster when he introduced 90-day detention in South Africa in 1963. Even some of the South African media opposed it. But the excuses are the same: “The security of the state is paramount”.

Perhaps Europe needs a liberal conservative like Helen Suzman, to stand up against the creeping fascism in that continent. Of course the sycophantic National Party press proclaimed that B.J. Vorster took the moral high ground, but history has proved that Helen Suzman was right, and even Vorster’s former colleagues have paid tribute to her. But Gordon Brown, I am told, would still like to introduce 90-day detention.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 January 2009 10:33 pm

    You’re an inspiration Steve!

    I was hauled in for an interview with the security police for a piece of poetry that I wrote that was published in a UDF magazine in 1985 (possibly 1986). I can assure you that at 14-16 years of age I was only an enemy to myself! But, like you, I was declared an enemy of the state, and certainly cost the taxpayers a lot of money in the years leading up to 1994… I spent a lot of time in the townships (especially Orlando West with Paul Verryn) and on WITS University’s campuses….

    But, as I say, the overzealous interest from the security police was well wasted on me!

  2. 4 January 2009 11:50 pm

    Great post. I hadn’t really thought through the SA comparison but reading this post I can see the link. When I get time I will link back to this post.

    BTW 30 years ago that Tory could well have been me!

  3. 5 January 2009 4:04 am

    Ah, congratulations! Being named an enemy of the state when a state deserves it (as they all appear to at one time or another) is a considerable commendation.

    But how did you know you were such an enemy? In the USA, those so identified in the 60s usually didn’t know it for thirty or forty years.

  4. 5 January 2009 5:45 am


    How do you know?

    You know, as Dion points out, when goons like the ones in the picture (with or without the Darth Vader suits) begin taking an interest in you — following you around, tapping your telephone, opening your mail, sometimes ostentatiously recording your speeches at political meetings.

    You know when a magistrate calls you in for a formal warning in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act to desist from activities that “are furthering or are calculated to further any of the objects of communism” (in the Act such activities were so widely defined as to include almost any expression of opposition to the government). It was later supplemented by a Terrorism Act (in 1967) and Britain has its own Terrorism Act now, while the US has its Patriot Act and “Homeland Security”, the very name of which is redolent of the apartheid regime.

    American sociology and psychology text books published in the 1960s and earlier used to say that believing that your phone was tapped was a symptom of paranoia, which was one of the first hints to me of the postmodern idea of the social construction of reality. But actually, as in this case, it is the state, rather than the citizens it spies upon, that is more likely to be paranoid.

    OK, the opening of mail was sometimes suspected rather than known. One of the things that amused me in the files with the reports of the SB to the Minister was that in many instances “‘n delikate bron” (a sensitive source) could only have referred to some jobsworth steaming open letters in the basement of the Pietermaritzburg post office.

  5. 5 January 2009 5:59 am

    PS A common refrain from big government apologists in response to fears expressed that draconian state powers will be abused is “The innocent have nothing to fear.”

    Yeah, right.

  6. Gus Gosling permalink
    5 January 2009 8:54 am


    Helen Suzman was one person who had proof that the boys from BOSS were intercepting her mail (part of `Operation Knoopsgat’). She raised the matter in parliament:

    I charged the government with illegally tampering with my mail and tapping my phone. I said that, instead of having its ear to the ground and informing the cabinet, for example, that serious unrest was brewing in Soweto in 1976, the government had its ear to my telephone…

    (from In No Uncertain Terms pg 193)

    It’s worth quoting the reply that the ever-appalling P.W. Botha gave:

    If you want to sup with the devil you need a long spoon. If you want to communicate with the devil, use his postal facilities or allow him to use your postal facilities or your letterheads. . . . The Hon. Member must not push me too far or I shall tell her who writes on her letterheads, and who writes her name on the back of the envelope and signs his own name to the letter. The Hon. Member is a vicious little cat when she is wronged, but I say to her, “Choose your friends better.”

    Giving one a cogent summary of PW: stupid, rude, arrogant, and a cheap little bully too.

  7. 5 January 2009 9:12 am


    In 1977 Lawrence Wood, a United Party MP, was incensed when a letter I had sent him was opened by the Department of the Interior. I think it was good for his soul, and enabled him to realise that such things did happen.

  8. Gus Gosling permalink
    5 January 2009 9:59 am


    The Liberal Party experienced its fair share of mail tampering. They too were able to prove that this was taking place, as Alan Paton recalled:

    … About this time there was an incident that proved incontrovertibly that these suspicions were well founded. The Transvaal office of the Liberal Party had written a letter to the office of the party in Cape
    Town, and the Cape Town office was mystified to receive a letter written by the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) to a student organisation in Prague. Equally mystified were the students in Prague who received a letter from the party office in the Transvaal, on a topic of which they had no knowledge whatsoever. The people in the Transvaal office then wrote another letter to the Cape Town office, which was thoroughly examined by fingerprint experts before it was posted. When the letter was delivered in Cape Town, it was examined again, and a new set of fingerprints was found on the letter inside. Margaret Ballinger, with great satisfaction no doubt, related these incidents to the House of Assembly. Peter Brown in his account wrote as follows, ‘ … the Nationalists were flabbergasted, not at what had happened but at the way they had been caught out.’ However, all turned out well for them, for on 22 March it was reported by C. R Swart, the Minister of Justice, that a police inquiry had found that there was ‘no organised mail tampering’. But members of the Liberal Party, probably suspicious by nature, decided to be more careful in their use of the telephone and the mail.

    That’s from Paton’s Journey Continued , Chapter 10, which contains quite a bit more on harassment by the security police.

  9. abraxas permalink
    5 January 2009 1:21 pm

    There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.
    Ayn Rand

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