Dividing Fences

By Julie Mellin

Post-apartheid South Africa has struggled for the past 17 years to fashion a unified, meaningful identity. For almost 50 years, the government of South Africa upheld a policy of segregation, which the white minority aggressively reinforced. South Africa was a country run for and by white people—black South Africans were seen as a threat to the dominant white culture and treated accordingly. The government barred them from educational opportunities, jobs, and the ability to live in the same cities as white people. Despite calls for a “New South Africa,” failures by the current government have maintained this construction. Although the methods of exclusion have changed, the result is the same: racial segregation.

After 1994, the new government adopted a progressive, liberal, and broad constitution. It publicly embraced multiculturalism and diversity, designed a new national anthem incorporating five of its 11 national languages, and billed itself as the “Rainbow Nation.” However, since then South Africa’s crime and insecurity problem—or at least how it is perceived by its citizens—has contributed to an increase in segregation and fear.

The post-apartheid government’s focus on surface-level rhetoric about unity and peace while failing to develop a united political community (in part through the adequate provision of security) has created a fragmented and intolerant South Africa. According to the 2003 National Victims of Crime Survey (NVCS), fear of crime, especially within the white community, has risen substantially since the late 1990s. The number of gated communities, levels of privately-hired security, and amount of money invested in physical security measures have all gone up dramatically.

The safest South Africans tend to be those who are able to pay for private security and live in gated communities. The outsiders are poor and black, characterized as criminals, and feared as a threat. South African identity is being constructed quite literally through the physical borders of fortified homes and gated communities.

In a well-functioning society, security is provided by the government. Because the state has consistently failed to provide it, the ability to pay for private security is increasingly linked to an elite status based on security, race, and wealth. According to research conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimein 2000, South Africa ranked second for assault and murder per capita and first for rapes per capita (out of 60 countries surveyed). Although statistics from various sources vary, the overwhelming international and local consensus is that violent crime in South Africa is a very real epidemic. Most importantly, South Africans do not feel safe in their homes, communities, or country.

Essentially, the “new South African” is defined, not by his or her position as a legal citizen (as the Rainbow Nation would claim), but by her level of protection and the economic status necessary to buy it. Apartheid-era racism, segregation, and fear not only still exist but are being aggravated by the government’s failure to provide security.

Tellingly, South Africa’s NVCS also found that whites were among the most concerned about crime and safety; in addition, far more any other racial group, whites tended to believe that those who perpetrate crime are outsiders. Hence the withdrawal into gated communities: places where affluent citizens can build fortified enclaves, complete with 50-foot electric fences, private security guards, and attack dogs. Not surprisingly, the majority of South Africans who believe that the government is incapable of protecting them are white. They are also the most likely racial group to take physical security measures to protect themselves and their homes—and the most likely to relocate to gated communities.

These exclusionary communities have been criticized at length for creating a new form of what Charlotte Lemanski, an expert in human geography who has written extensively on the subject, calls “urban apartheid.” This new apartheid echoes the old one in that it intensifies both residential and social division, restricts freedom of movement, and protects the wealthy and white almost exclusively. Before 1994, segregation was enforced through pass laws, “Native” territories, and the revocation of permanent residency. Now it’s gated communities, electric fences, and 24/7 security guards.

When security is shared equally, it can create bonds across communities—not only making South Africans feel safer, but lending a greater trust in, and dedication to, the “New South Africa.” However, rather than unifying South Africa through the provision of public security, the government has allowed private ownership of the issue and gated communities to split the country into two. Instead of a “Rainbow Nation,” South Africa has established a country where fortified yet insecure whites try to keep out the poor, black, criminal outsiders. Although based upon beliefs about security (rather than straightforward racism), this division perpetuates the very system South Africans fought against for over 50 years.


Julie Mellin is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user hmvh]

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