Scott Hanselman

South Africa 2008 - Fence Culture

December 10, '08 Comments [15] Posted in Africa
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As an American, one of the things that stands out to me each time I visit South Africa is that everything is fenced. And not just fenced, but tall-concertina-wire-electric-angry-fenced. No country I've ever visited has fences this dramatic. 

People live in named communities (I can't help but to internally think of them as burbclaves) that are a collection of houses surrounded by a fence. These are similar to the named neighborhoods (developments) in the states, except for the posted guard and gate with a keypad. Once you're inside the community, each house still has their own fence, gates, and bars on the windows.

The South Africans I talked to don't think anything of it. One said "Good neighbors start with good fences." When I expressed my surprise at the fence culture, folks said things like "[Americans] are the ones that totally changed your  airport security system after 9/11. You're as much a culture of fear, or more so, than [South Africans] are."

This was an interesting observation, but of course, as an ethnocentric American, I didn't quite see it that way. ;) From the outside looking in, I see fence culture everywhere. I was flipping through an advertising insert in the local newspaper and it was filled with security options for your home. Many were focused on being very secure without looking overtly like security. There were steel blinds that could "withstand an attack from a 2kg hammer" while still looking stylish in your home. There's monitoring services and guard services.

Some South Africans I talked to about this said that fence culture has always been. First when the Whites in power separated themselves from the Blacks, and now when the "folks with stuff" separate themselves from the folks without stuff. The burbclaves I've seen are fairly mixed, with some leaning one way or the other, but generally, it seems, if you have the money to live somewhere, you can live there. For example, my brother-in-law's family stays in a community of 30 or so houses that has every color under the sun. The common thread is that they all live in this gated community. They all have satellite TV, washing machines, hot water, etc. Suburbs are suburbs in my experience, no matter where you are in the world. This might as well be Kansas, from an amenities point of view.

It seems to me that the distance between the haves and the have nots here in South Africa is fairly marked. This has been my experience in other African countries as well. Hiring a full-time maid is a fairly inexpensive prospect here, as is day labor or construction work.

Where things come into stark contrast is when you leave your community and venture out. So far I've been the only White guy walking anywhere. At the mall today, I was lost and I asked someone how to exit the mall. She asked where I parked, and when I said, I walked, she was visibly shocked. Not regular bemused, but taken aback. Apparently going somewhere without a car is an odd thing. I looked like a have, but was doing a have-not activity. Silly Americans I suppose.

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Wednesday, 10 December 2008 16:19:10 UTC
There are variations on this theme within America. Here in Houston, nearly every suburban back yard is surrounded by a fence. Not a tall-concertina-wire-electric-angry-fence, more likely a simple cedar fence. But a friend of mine from Iowa said this was the thing that most surprised him when he moved to Texas.
Wednesday, 10 December 2008 17:08:53 UTC
While I agree that SA in general does have quite a fence culture (one that sadly will persist long after we've overcome our current levels of crime), you're seeing the worst of it in Joburg. Other cities are not quite as bad, and the fenced off suburbs you're witnessing are thankfully mostly limited to Joburg.

Aside from many new developments, Cape Town's suburbs remain fenceless, although the houses are generally fenced (and socially, I suppose, we're pretty fenced off too, but that's another matter altogether).
Wednesday, 10 December 2008 17:33:06 UTC
Regarding the shocked woman at the mall, maybe she was concerned about your skin. ;)
Wednesday, 10 December 2008 21:09:25 UTC
My wife is from the Philippines. I have been there 4 times now and will be going next year again. What you describe is exactly the same. Except when I walk around in the malls, I’m a head taller. My wife has no problems finding me; it’s that white guy standing taller than everyone else.
Wednesday, 10 December 2008 22:37:17 UTC
Re lack of fencing in the US; who needs a fence when everyone can have a gun and shoot someone that wonders in your property? :)

Admittedly, I don't know how easy it is to obtain a gun in South Africa.
Diego
Thursday, 11 December 2008 00:18:59 UTC
You walked to the mall ????? I bet she was taken back by the fact than an >American< walked to the mall. :-)
I've been living in the US for a few years now, and I'm still taken back by the insane driving culture, and the lack of pedestrians and bikers here.
Thursday, 11 December 2008 01:13:09 UTC
Hi Scott

I'm from Costa Rica, and for us the situation is similar, worst I could say.
I'm living now in Seattle (working for MS), and this is one of the things I like the most here, the safety that you feel almost everywhere (in comparison with what I was used to back in CR).
Most people in Costa Rica live "locked in", so, seeing something like this: http://twitpic.com/rs5n is pretty common, at least in the capital.

And @Diego, in Costa Rica is also really easy to get a gun (legally), but what's the idea of getting a gun if you aren't at home when somebody enters to steal something?.

Thursday, 11 December 2008 02:33:51 UTC
I grew up in Nairobi, where many people have walls of concrete with broken shards of glass on top to keep the burglers out. I always thought of the fences as an effect of economy.

What's interesting these days is that although there aren't fences in America like you see in Africa, the "gated community" concept seems to be taking off.
Thursday, 11 December 2008 04:51:52 UTC
I remember in high school reading a short story about the security fences in South Africa in which a child was caught in the barbed wire. It was rather disturbing; I still remember it after all these years.
Thursday, 11 December 2008 06:47:17 UTC
Yeah, walking to a mall in South Africa is very brave. The only two times I walked to a nearby mall, I got mugged when I left. Security is the key factor is South African homes
Thursday, 11 December 2008 09:49:37 UTC
Too true - we are somewhat overwhelmed by our sense of insecurity here (writing to you from Johannesburg South Africa), partly due to the huge social, financial, and cultural disparities that dog our communities... but I think also due to the 'lack of visible policing', 'hugely lacking and inefficient justice system', 'grossly over-populated jails', 'inept and corrupt officials' - key-phrases you are aware of any society but multiplied many-fold in this neck of the woods.

Of course, the financial institutions are in on the act - try to get home-insurance without the 'angry' fences, steel bars and gates at every house entrance, alarm systems with armed reaction service, vehicle satellite tracking devices for your car etc. Either you pay a massive premium, or you are simply refused cover.

As in most other African countries, the empowered people are often operating a huge self-enrichment process at the expense of providing efficient, basic services such as law-enforcement, primary health care, expedient judicial system etc. etc. (you all know this...).

BUT - I was born and bred here - and I love it - so although I b*tch and moan - I'll probably live here until I die (hopefully of natural causes). Anyway, remember our motto here on the dark continent: 'Africa is not for sissies'.. :-)
WGIA
Thursday, 11 December 2008 17:46:07 UTC
The craziest fence I remember seeing was when I was stationed in Germany in 80s. I went to West Berlin and had to drive through the (former) East German corridor from Helmstadt (West Germany) to West Berlin. We had to go through the Russian check points (Alpha and Bravo) Checkp Point Charlie was in between East and West Berlin. If you get a chance you must see the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. Once in West Berlin, it was a real trip. The wall was every where. You could be walking through West Berlin and then all of sudden boom, the wall. The real scary part was the other side. The West side had all the graffitti, the other side was painted pure white and had a space of 50 yards or so with another wall. The East's side of the wall was painted white so the guards could easily shoot people trying to escape to the West. This 50 yard space also had all the mines and stuff. I remember seeing homes on the East Side where the wall literally went through. It was really strange to see buildings with the windows bricked up so people could not escape. I learned to appreciate the USA after that trip and not to take my US citizenship lightly. The best way to describe East Germany was it looked like that it had not been touched since WWII it was black and white. When I was returning to the West I felt like Dorthy when she landed in Oz. When she opened the door, there was color and that was exactly how West Germany was green and colorful.
Kevin
Monday, 15 December 2008 13:05:08 UTC
I hate the fences, but they are a necessary evil unfortunately, as is armed response. Some of the downsides to good old sunny SA.

Walking to the mall is also funny, the main reason is because South Africans love going to malls, and not just one. We would go to one mall on the one side of Pretoria (City close to JoBurg) and then end up at a mall right across town. So walking 20-30km is not fun, driving a car is much better. We are also not afraid of travelling long distances, hence to affinity towards all things mobile, cars, bikes, scooters, taxi busses etc.

That and how will you get the bags of stuff home again? Walking with them is not a lot of fun.
Marthinus
Wednesday, 24 December 2008 17:34:58 UTC
According to Associated Content, South Africa is the second most dangerous country not at war. Only COlumbia is worse.

I hope that this explains why we have this gated community culture.
Friday, 09 January 2009 12:12:35 UTC
Hi Scott,

I've experienced much the same in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. I suggested walking outside the fence across the road to purchase something at the service station (gas station). People thought I was insane.

I had a friend who was recently caught in the middle of a gun battle in Port Moresby. The police were fighting the army. Yes you read that right. When the police are fighting the army, it's time to leave.

Regards,

Greg
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.