Oscar Pistorius

South Africa's 'security villages' provide little protection for residents

Communities like the one where Pistorius lives unable to eradicate threat of domestic violence

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 February, 2013, 4:54am


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In the end, kilometres of concrete walls, high-voltage wires and 24-hour security patrols were not enough to keep Reeva Steenkamp safe from harm.

Inside one of the countless walled suburban compounds dotting South Africa, the model was shot dead last week at the luxury home of her boyfriend, Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius.

Experts believe the ubiquitous communities, known as "security villages", in fact give residents a false sense of security from the high violent crime rates that plague the country.

"People are seeking to create a lifestyle that is out of touch with what contemporary urban living actually is," said Erna Van Wyk, a psychologist at the University of Witwatersrand who specialises in traumatic stress.

People are seeking to create a lifestyle that is out of touch with what contemporary urban living actually is

Van Wyk's research shows that residents often band together over shared values. In turn, they feel that threats can only come from outside their groups. "There's a false split of where I am safe and … not safe in the world," she said. "However, domestic violence is every bit as common in gated communities."

Silver Woods Country Estate, where Steenkamp was killed, is just one of the thousands of security villages that have popped up over South Africa.

"In the past 10 years, the demand for these things have increased almost exponentially, because people have been worried about crime," said Garth Jaeger, director of Silver Woods developer Garnat Properties.

Jaeger estimates that "many hundreds of thousands of rand" were spent on Silver Woods' security features to lure upper-middle-class homebuyers.

Residential, commercial and industrial security is a huge contributor to South Africa's economy. The intruder detection services industry is estimated to be a 60-billion-rand (HK$52.5 billion) market, according to the South African Intruder Detection Services Association. Meanwhile, there are more than 390,000 active security officers employed throughout the country.

However, South Africa's well-to-do homeowners are not just obsessed with safety. Branding of gated communities like Silver Woods also relies heavily on projecting an air of exclusivity and community.

"Many people in gated communities seek to create a somewhat idyllic lifestyle that fits the image of village life prior to rapid urbanisation," Van Wyk said.

"At the same time, the lifestyle is predicated on wealth and a particular kind of elitism that excludes those outside of the bounds of such communities."

Some feel this harkens back to a darker time in the country's history, with the erection of fortified enclaves being reflective of a new apartheid, where well-to-do whites seek to separate themselves from poorer blacks.

"It is said that the fear of crime is put forward to mask a racist fear," Van Wyk's colleagues at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies wrote in a journal article.

The paper's authors found that the number of these "walled versions of suburbia" increased by 153 per cent between 1998 and 2005 in Cape Town alone.

Young couples pursuing the dream of home ownership are driving the market, representing 66 per cent of sales in the secure enclaves of upward mobility. But as the whole world learned this past week, even the highest walls could not stop the gilded dreams of one young couple from turning into a nightmare.