Solidarity in fortress suburbia

2008-01-18 00:00

There is something black South Africans became skilled at generations ago that whites are just beginning to learn now. It is the art of looking after oneself.

Self-protection does not come naturally if it isn’t already in the blood; whites have made some spectacularly false starts. But they are learning slowly, and as they do so, they are beginning, more and more, to resemble black South Africa.

Until the late eighties, or the early nineties, perhaps, the South African state was able to protect whites from harm as well as any of the advanced industrial states in the northern hemisphere. Rates of murder, armed robbery and grievous assault were as low among South African whites as they were among the middle classes of the gentlest cities in the developed world.

As for the personal security of black people, the white state did little to underwrite that at all. In the seventies and eighties, crimes such as murder and armed robbery were doubling every five or six years in Soweto and Alexandra, and yet remained constant among whites.

That gap is now closing. The transition to democracy has spread the condition of insecurity from black people to white. The South African state is no longer able to keep whites as safe as their suburban counterparts in Surrey and Amsterdam. White South Africans are now as victimised by crimes such as armed robbery as the middle classes of notoriously violent cities such as Caracas, Bogota and Sao Paulo.

And so, for the first time in the history of South African security, whites are starting to do what blacks have done for many decades. Abandoning the state as a failed protector, they are beginning to buy personal protection on open markets and to build it using the resources of ethnic solidarity and neighbourliness.

How are they doing? The first decade or so was an unmitigated disaster. Whites began protecting themselves by recoiling from their cities. In a thousand shapes and forms, they built fortresses, moats, fences, and ducked behind them.

And yet if one looks at what has happened to crime statistics over the past decade, this massive investment in safety has been a ruse. The crimes that the new barricades are meant to ward off have increased. In the 1995-96 financial year, the police recorded just over 77 000 armed robberies a year. In 2006-07, the figure stands at more than 126 000, an increase of almost two-thirds. In contrast, residential and business burglaries — in which empty homes and businesses are broken into and thus nobody is held up at gunpoint — have declined a little. The contrast is ominous. It seems that a decade of barricade building has simply spawned a generation of criminals prepared to use more violence.

Why did suburbanites throw so much money at so useless a remedy? Essentially because they acted as individual householders and not as communities, and because they live in a market economy. If your neighbours build higher walls, you must do so too. If your house is the only one around without a big wall, a predator who reconnoitres your street will target you. Next, your neighbour gets an electric fence and you must follow. Then armed response. The security market thrives on the blind necessity of these cascading defences. Everyone keeps up with his neighbour, and, collectively, everyone is more exposed to violent crime than he or she was before the first walls came up.

Only in the past few years have white suburbanites begun to organise self-protection with some effectiveness. It is happening, almost invariably, in neighbourhoods blessed with the invaluable asset of ethnic solidarity: Jewish Glenhazel, Muslim Fordsburg, the pockets of Portuguese-South African communities to the south and east of central Johannesburg. What distinguishes them from others is that they are acting as communities, rather than as individual householders. Instead of each burying himself in heavily fortified private space, they are collectively policing public space.

Each neighbourhood does so after its own fashion. In Glenhazel, well-paid veterans from the Angolan war patrol in 4x4s, stalking unfamiliar young men who enter the neighbourhood. In less wealthy areas, residents do the stalking themselves. But the same rudimentary principle is at work: make life very difficult for unfamiliar black men, especially those travelling in groups of two or more.

It sounds, and indeed is, unpleasant, but black communities have been doing much the same for generations. The examples are legion. In Basotho-dominated Newclare on the western edge of Johannesburg in the early fifties, a formation of well-armed Basotho migrants called the Russians prevented any non-Basotho young man from entering the neighbourhood. To the north of Newclare, in Sophiatown, a 1 000-strong association of proud title-deed holders called the Civilian Guards patrolled the streets every night on the lookout for tsotsis. Where policing is inadequate and neighbours are bound by ties of solidarity, collective self-protection inevitably blossoms.

It is no different today. In the heart of old Alexandra, where the same families have lived for generations, an association of middle-aged men called the Sector Four Patrol Group fans out across the neighbourhood in groups of 20 every Friday and Saturday night, stopping and searching men for weapons. A few hundred metres away, in shack settlements inhabited by new arrivals to the city, there is no collective self-protection. People do not know or trust their neighbours, and so the invaluable asset of solidarity is missing. Everyone hunkers down in his or her shack, keeping a low profile, hoping that trouble will not find him or her.

That is precisely how white SA is finally beginning to resemble black SA. The suburbs are becoming motley patchworks of self-defence. For those lucky enough to live in places where bonds are thick, effective modes of protection come quite naturally. Those not blessed with this asset of neighbourly solidarity suffer. To live in a suburb where the resources of self-organisation are poor is to be less secure.

Blacks have known this longer than anyone can remember. With the demise of minority rule, whites are beginning to know it too. It is the most traumatic and destructive aspect of white experience in post-apartheid SA. No amount of prosperity will ever make up for it. When personal security has always been a birthright, its sudden diminishment is inconsolably devastating.

• ‘Notes From a Fractured Country’, a selection of Steinberg’s journalism, has recently been published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

• Jonny Steinberg is a senior consultant at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

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