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Johannesburg: Why Gated Communities Threaten Democratic Cities

'Unlike apartheid, they do not discriminate on the basis of race … but they restrict and control the movement of everyone.'

How gated communities keep insiders in, outsiders out, and leave the national project on the back foot. Christina Culwick at Urban Africa reports.


by Christina Culwick at Urban Africa

Recently I tried to drive through a gated section of Westcliff, an affluent suburb in Johannesburg, to avoid traffic, only to be stopped by the guard at the boom and informed that I was not permitted to go through. I insisted that I had every right to enter, since it was a public road so I couldn't legally be prevented from entering. The guard was not convinced. I went on to claim my right to freedom of movement and he maintained his position to restrict it. Our back and forth continued – neither party budging, and both getting more indignant. Eventually I stormed out of my car, lifted the boom myself and was instructed by another guard to "Just go".

Reflecting on this incident, I feel I should declare that I am a white, middle class South African who benefited from apartheid, and live adjacent to Westcliff. I acknowledge that the private security guard with whom I argued has likely experienced restriction of movement to a degree I cannot comprehend, and his experience of exclusion in Westcliff is likely far greater than mine. His job is to implement a system. My issue lies not with him but with that system.

My incident epitomised the attempt for gated communities to create pockets of exclusionary space in our cities. I'm not impervious to the reasons why living in a boomed-off suburb is appealing, nor am I unaffected by crime, but gated communities don't deal with the root causes of these issues. They try to address a symptom and while doing so create a range of other social ills. Gated communities prevent our society from enjoying the rights enshrined in our constitution – in particular the rights to freedom of movement and expression.

Let me elaborate.

The Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO) undertakes a biennial Quality of Life survey (QoL) measuring inter alia quality of life, socio-economic circumstances, attitudes to government and services, and psycho-social attitudes of Gauteng residents. The survey aims to provide critical data to equip government and society to achieve the vision established for the city-region. However, in each survey undertaken there were areas to which our fieldworkers were refused access to conduct interviews.

Figure 1, below, is a zoomed-in map of central Gauteng that outlines in red areas to which 2013 QoL fieldworkers could not gain access. The map also shows the various gated community typologies (boomed areas, estates and sectional schemes) and reveals clear overlaps between 'no-go zones' and gated communities. Apart from mining compounds, gated communities have the highest access refusal rate across all residential areas. In some instances fieldworkers were not merely refused access, but marched out of the gated area at gunpoint.

GCRO gated communitiesFigure 1: Gated communities and no-access areas in Gauteng.

Fieldwork agencies have informed us that these areas are always problematic. Thus, for most surveys, including those required for critical government planning such as the National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS), gated communities are automatically excluded from the sample frame. These surveys are thus skewed and non-representative – unavoidably so, and by the actions of people who are often the most vocal in the media of their criticisms of government. Official surveys and GCRO's QoL are critical vehicles for being heard by government, yet many gated communities voluntarily silence their voices – restricting the freedom to impart and receive information and ideas (freedom of expression).

People in gated communities have ensured that government does not hear from them, which prevents government from taking cognisance of their situation and concerns, and in turn reinforces the belief that government does not address their issues. Gated communities have produced a self-perpetuating cycle that locks them into this reality. Recent GCRO research based on the 2013 QoL measured self-isolation, disconnection from current affairs, feelings of apathy, community participation, and fear of their neighbourhood. It revealed a correlation between gated communities and social isolation, with 77% of gated communities in Gauteng being located in wards where social isolation scores are above the provincial average.

Gated communities are not just places where people retreat from society, but also of exclusion and a means of influx control. However, unlike apartheid, they do not discriminate on the basis of race, nor do they require pass books, but they restrict and control the movement of everyone who cannot afford to 'buy' access. Gated communities by design limit freedom of movement and have become means of restricting freedom of expression. In short they stand in the way of the national project: of building a united, democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom.

Christina Culwick  is a researcher at the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO). Her research interests are  justice and sustainability transitions in the Gauteng City-Region (GCR), with particular focus on exploring the existing governance and infrastructure systems that need to shift in order to transform the GCR towards sustainability and equality.

This article originally appeared at Urban Africa on 6 April 2015.