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.

MORE FROM QUARTZ:

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. Environment

    No, Puerto Rico’s New Climate-Change Law Is Not a ‘Green New Deal’

    Puerto Rico just adopted legislation that commits it to generating all its power from renewable sources. Here’s what separates that from what’s going on in D.C.

  2. a photo of Northern Virginia's Crystal City.
    Life

    When Your Neighborhood Gets a Corporate Rebrand

    From National Landing to SoHa, neighborhoods often find themselves renamed by forces outside the community, from big companies to real estate firms.

  3. People eat and drink coffee inside a small coffeehouse.
    Life

    Gentrification Is Hurting Kuala Lumpur's Iconic Coffee Shops

    Traditional kopitiams, which serve sweetened coffee in no-frills surroundings, are a part of Malaysian national identity, but their survival is precarious.

  4. Equity

    The Hidden Horror of Hudson Yards Is How It Was Financed

    Manhattan’s new luxury mega-project was partially bankrolled by an investor visa program called EB-5, which was meant to help poverty-stricken areas.

  5. Tech workers sit around a table on their laptops in San Francisco, California
    Life

    America’s Tech Hubs Still Dominate, But Some Smaller Cities Are Rising

    Despite established urban tech hubs, some smaller cities are attracting high-tech jobs with lower living costs, unique talent pools, and geographic diversity.