Some people are ready for a change. Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach

High security walls surround many middle-class homes in the country's suburbs, but they may actually increase violent crime.

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 percent 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 Africans 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.”

This post originally appeared on Quartz, an Atlantic partner site.


How the U.S. Government's Tiny Statistical Error Is Distorting the True Cost of College

Why We're Building the Biggest Ships Ever Made

19 New Netflix Offerings Coming in January 2015

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a map of future climate risks in the U.S.

    America After Climate Change, Mapped

    With “The 2100 Project: An Atlas for A Green New Deal,” the McHarg Center tries to visualize how the warming world will reshape the United States.

  2. photo: A man boards a bus in Kansas City, Missouri.

    Why Kansas City’s Free Transit Experiment Matters

    The Missouri city is the first major one in the U.S. to offer no-cost public transportation. Will a boost in subsidized mobility pay off with economic benefits?

  3. Perspective

    Why Car-Free Streets Will Soon Be the Norm

    In cities like New York, Paris, Rotterdam, and soon San Francisco, car-free streets are emerging amid a growing movement.

  4. Design

    New York City Will Require Bird-Friendly Glass on Buildings

    Hundreds of thousands of migratory birds smash into the city’s buildings every year. The city council just passed a bill to cut back on the carnage.

  5. photo: an Uber driver.

    Did Uber Just Enable Discrimination by Destination?

    In California, the ride-hailing company is changing a policy used as a safeguard against driver discrimination against low-income and minority riders.