The Defensive City

Part 2 in my South Africa series

The combination of affluence and desperate poverty in South Africa I described yesterday has made the country a world leader in both crime and security technology.

In particular, security measures are pervasive in the physical form of the city. Although some of the security measures date from the apartheid era, sadly many are new. Cement walls or metal fences surround almost every house or apartment building. These walls can range quite widely. Some deter intruders with a traditional spiked wrought iron fence, perhaps embellished with sharp fleur-de-lis. Many have barbed, razor, or electrified wires. One house we found in a trendy neighborhood was defended by shards of glass set into the concrete wall. Oddly, this wall was decorated with widely spaced letters spelling “LOVE”

Electricified FenceFence

View of Table MountainSecurity Spikes

Other measures were also common. Windows on homes are barred, even in the rural area we visited over two hours’ drive from Cape Town. Metal gates and turnstiles were common to regulate access to businesses, government buildings, and apartment buildings.

Security Gate

Store GateMany businesses, particularly in the downtown area, had locked gates at the door. If you would like to enter you had to wait for the store attendant to buzz you in. The store to the right was open.

Nonphysical measures were also common. Uniformed and armed security guards are common in businesses, public spaces, and even patrolling private neighborhoods. Each train station in the commuter rail system has two security officers – one for each platform. A newspaper account I read described how private police were increasingly conducting investigations for the overworked police. At the end of apartheid in 1994, the country created a national South African Police Service to provide police protection throughout the country, and this agency’s retrofitted trucks and vans are ubiquitous.

With urbanization and inequality growing around the world, we should expect a hardening of the public realm. While bollards and gated communities are much discussed in the U.S., the defensive cityscape is much more subtle and persuasive than anti-terror measures around major sites. In this way, South Africa could be a sad harbinger of things to come elsewhere in the developed world.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. actually, i grew up in brasil, and it’s the same thing there (sao paulo). it’s very common for broken glass to be set into concrete, even in the trendiest of neighborhoods. i’m so used to it. it was wierd reading your post because … someone actually noticed it, and put it into a context that i hadn’t thought about. if you ever get to brasil, it’d be interesting for you to compare and contrast it w/south africa. some of the newer buildings in brasil are going high tech, so you don’t actually ‘see’ their defensive nature, but believe me, it’s there in hiding.

    as a side thought…if you think about it, dc is rather defensive in nature…. weren’t the roundabouts (circles) originally developed as a mechanism to stop invaders? they would put cannons on them and force the invaders back from main routes into the city. i actually saw them put to use on 9/11 when the guard put tanks facing the main arteries off the roundabout in foggy bottom. anyway…

    great post!

  2. Thanks for the comment. I decided not to go into DC in depth. I am planning to try to map the boundaries of the area where window bars are common, and try to figure out whether they come down when a neighborhood changes, and if they do how long it takes …

    What kind of measures are hidden in these new buildings?

  3. i used to live on a little street in georgetown by the water front (cecil place) back in the mid/late nineties, when georgetown was quite a bit different than it is now. the movie theater was just a vacant lot. all the houses on my street had bars. in the early 2000, we all started getting rid of them. right now, i’m in NE dc, right by the uline arena (where the gentrification is stepping up) and the bars are coming down slowly. i took them off of my house about two years ago. it’s about 50/50 nowadays. i would think that maybe there’s some kind of corellation with certain criminal activities? it would definitely be interesting though, and i’ll look forward to you posting it sometime in the future. cheers!

  4. i saw the same glass-in-concrete security walls in places all over ecuador (quito, otavalo, cuenca, riobamba, etc.) iron gates were quite common as well. i asked about them, and was told that security of that type was common everywhere in south america.

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