Why it’s time for South Africa to take down its walls

People are ready for a change.
People are ready for a change.
Image: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
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It’s a culture shock for many visitors to South Africa to see the high walls around many homes in our suburbs. It’s to keep the criminals out, we say.

But it’s not making much of a difference, some experts have been saying, and our crime stats prove it: violent house robberies, where perpetrators threaten or use violence against their victims, have increased by 7.4% between 2013 and 2014.

Experts, like Professor Monique Marks, a researcher and head of the Urban Futures Centre at the Durban University of Technology, say walls are actually making things worse. “No one can see what is happening in your home so no one can help,” she told the Daily News. They keep people from being each other’s natural lookout. And they are an even bigger barrier to social cohesion, in a country that needs it a lot.

Further, Marks told Quartz that high walls not only fail to curb crime, they attract criminals—once inside, the criminal is as isolated as the homeowner, free to do as they please.

Marks started doing research into this in 2014, comparing two Durban suburbs, Umbilo, a lower to middle class suburb characterized by low walls, and Westville, more wealthy with higher walls. “I’ve always had this nagging suspicion that walls lead to insecurity,” she told Quartz. She worked with metro police officers and security companies and rode along to figure out which houses they were called out to. She discovered that homes with high walls were more frequently targeted. Homes in Umbilo, she says, “Were targeted less for serious violent crime. And targeted more for petty theft and opportunistic crime.” The police and security people she collaborated with on the project also added that incidents of crime at high-walled homes were a nightmare to police.

This is her simple advice: Lower your walls. If you choose a barrier, make it palisade fencing, so you can still see the road.

But is it too much of a psychological shift for some South African’s to lower their guard?

The walls in South Africa’s middle class and rich suburbs (once exclusively white) started getting higher and thicker in the ’90s, at the time of our transition out of apartheid. Whites who did not flee the country were convinced that they would be murdered in their beds by angry, vengeful blacks.

That did not happen.

Nonetheless, as our democracy has grown, people have continued to build formidable-looking barriers. You can find walls around some homes in the townships. It’s become a kind of middle-class status symbol, too, for all races but the fancier the suburb, the more “impenetrable” the barriers around the houses, as well as whole communities. Thick concrete slabs that block your view from whatever side you happen to be on.

Those with the means will have camera surveillance and line the wall’s top with electric fencing. Those who can’t take on the electricity costs will embed broken bottles or spikes.

About 10 years ago, I worked on a story about an ultra-posh Johannesburg suburb called Hurlingham Manor that was forcing its domestic workers to have identity cards made so they could show them to the guard at the boom before being allowed in to the neighborhood in which they worked. It was astounding how insensitive that community was to the racial overtones of their actions, as this echoed the apartheid pass law under which black people were arrested if they were found in the city, where they worked, without their pass books (identity documents).

I spoke to Nick Karvelas, founder of the Open City Forum, an organization opposed to road closures, and whose campaign had pitted him against homeowners associations. Karvelas made points about boom gates similar to Marks’ about high walls: That they made burglaries worse. He argued that criminals tended to get more violent when they knew they would struggle to find an escape route. He also noted that these neighborhoods frustrated the work of ambulances and emergency services, which had to fight to get through booms and barriers to save lives.

Like Marks, he was also making an appeal from the heart. He said that gated communities were forming their own little apartheid states, fortifying racial divisions, and taking the country back away from the dream of social harmony.

While Karvelas said his work 10 years ago created tension, Marks says response to her work has been very positive. “Interestingly, while on a national radio station, the presenter had warned me that I would get criticism. But people called from everywhere, saying that they want more open communities. They admitted that they felt imprisoned in their own homes.”

She seems to feel that people are ready for change. “It is part of the dream that South Africans have for themselves.”