Living behind the barricades

‘It’s war out there,” declares a Johannesburg security consultant, resolution in his voice. And considering that several of his guards — employed to protect the booming fortresses muscled around Johannesburg — have been robbed of their weapons and murdered, his sentiments are hardly surprising.

Wealthy Gauteng residents have opted to fight the war against crime by imprisoning themselves behind imposing booms, insurmountable high walls and calling on the protective services of security guards to patrol the domains of their citadels. Indeed, the phenomenon of enclosed communities in South Africa’s residential areas has burgeoned during the past five years, particularly in Gauteng. “There’s been no crime here for the year that I’ve worked here. Everything is peaceful and quiet,” says a boom operator with a smile.

In the space of just less than 15 minutes, two security cars, belonging to the same company, veered into the neighbourhood to check that everything was all right. Yet another guard dropped by a minute later to check if everything was still up to scratch. Bizarrely, inside one particular colossal estate, a lone security guard patrolled the expansive garden.

Still, 27-year-old Benin national Lucien Hounkponou hesitates to say that he feels safe here before the area was enclosed there was apparently a substantial amount of hijackings and housebreakings. “I suppose it’s okay to live here but one always has to be alert and aware to the danger that can occur, even with all of these high-tech precautions,” he says as he points to the ubiquitous barbed-wire fences.

The security consultant who prefers to remain anonymous, agrees. “Gated communities are essentially a catch-22 situation. Obviously it’s a deterrent to have a patrol vehicle protecting your home but guards act as nothing more than scarecrows. It’s only a short-term solution as crime is continually exploding.” He sardonically refers to enclosed communities as “grudge-buys” where residents are “forced” to buy something they want.

Karina Landman, research architect and urban designer at the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research, has conducted extensive research dealing with the consequences of crime prevention through environmental design.

In her report An Overview of Enclosed Neighbourhoods in South Africa, Landman highlights several distinct issues facing enclosed neighbourhoods. Among these are:

  • A sense of community;
  • Safety and security;
  • Social exclusion;
  • Urban fragmentation and separation;
  • Urban planning and management; and
  • Financial implications.

Supporters of enclosed communities stress that its development creates stronger community ties. Landman disagrees, saying in her report: “A sense of community cannot be created purely by putting up a gate or boom.”

Community conflict arises when residents are divided on the issue of enclosing a particular neighbourhood, obviously creating a breeding ground of dissatisfaction. This is exacerbated when residents opposed to the idea are forced to pay levies towards the maintenance and “improvement” of the area.

As for enclosed communities reducing the incidence of criminal activity, Landman is sceptical. “There’s no evidence in existence that points to gated communities actually reducing crime; there are only isolated instances where the crime situation has improved. But people make the mistake of thinking that criminals will always be discouraged by physical barriers like fences or booms. You have to look at the importance of community involvement as sometimes social control is more beneficial than physical control.”

The report emphasises the factor of social segregation and exclusion by the practice of barring “undesirable new residents, casual passers-by and excluding potential residents because of housing costs”. This, she believes, leads to fragmentation with the greater community, elitism and consequently establishes a barrier to social interaction. A considerable amount of apprehension is felt about central issues like traffic congestion and urban maintenance.

The possibility exists for the functioning of emergency services like ambulances — where mere seconds can mean the difference between life and death — police entry and exit points and fire-fighting to be hampered. Clearly, municipal services like waste removal and even the reading of water and electricity meters can feel the pinch.

“Once you start fencing off big neighbourhoods and it becomes the norm rather than exception, the scale of impact is likely to be far-reaching. Worryingly, it is these long-term effects that can influence the future of urban areas in South Africa,” Landman says.

Crime may be a national concern but northern Johannesburg-based real estate agent Milly Holz says that the establishment of gated communities to curb it is not only irrational but frivolous too. “It’s simply unreal. You can’t boom off a whole suburb giving a few privileged people advantages and not have a care for the repercussions. The traffic problems alone are immense as all the traffic is relocated from boomed streets to streets not equipped to deal with an increased traffic volume. It’s selfish,” she says firmly.

Secretary of the Saxonwold and Parkwood Residents’ Association, Lynne Haken, shares this view. She says that her community will rather “piggyback” on their local councils through the government’s community improvement districts and push for the return of the “bobby on the beat” and amenities like improved safety through roving patrols and foot patrols.

Of course, not everyone is anti-fortress. A Parkmore resident, who doesn’t want to be named, says that foreigners and non-Gautengers flock to security-tight areas like Parkmore, undoubtedly captivated by Gauteng’s notorious crime rate. “I feel secure and safe because there are fewer hijackings and rapes where I live. But sometimes the cost of maintaining the boom and patrol guards can become quite expensive,” she says.

Recently her fees shot up by 20%, meaning she now pays a monthly fee of R320 towards the boom and maintenance costs. Residents of enclosed communities can pay anything from R200 a month to R1 000 a month — undeniably good news for the private security industry. In Gauteng alone, security companies employ more than 200 000 guards, a substantial number of whom are employed to work in enclosed communities.

Security companies aren’t the only industries making work out of enclosed communities. Sandton Precinct, a non-profit organisation administering enclosed areas for 25 communities, administers the applications of more and more Gauteng residents who believe that enclosed communities is the only way to protect themselves. Owner Steve Margo believes that it is the most potent way of combating crime.

“Okay, while there are no independent statistics pointing to it, I have spoken to countless residents who reiterate that crime in their area has been dramatically cut to between 50% and 90%.” Margo laughs scornfully at the idea that enclosed communities are detrimental to traffic flow.

“That’s a load of rubbish. Road closures are definitely not a traffic obstruction if they are run properly. In certain cases, volunteers are brought in from communities who assist in the direction of traffic flow, and other road closures have their gates opened in peak periods and closed in other times. This allows us to monitor the flow of traffic and everyone works together,” he says.

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