To the outside observer, the suburbs of Johannesburg appear to be on perpetual lockdown. The city has an incredible amount of security on display. Outside of pictures from warzones, I’ve never seen anything like the crime-prevention the citizens of Joburg employ.
Every suburban house has its own wall, complete with automated gate for the driveway. Almost every one of these walls is topped by an electric fence. The security on the perimeter is only the beginning, though. Nearly every home has a placard advertising the security firm that protects it. These security firms provide a myriad of burglar alarms and require you to punch in a security code upon entering your home. These firms aren’t your stereotypical rent-a-cop, either. They’re about as close as one can get to hiring your own private suburban swat team. I tripped an alarm at Howard’s once, and two gentlemen arrived on the scene in under three minutes. Each man was decked out in Kevlar, had a hand on the grip of a holstered pistol, and politely but firmly asked what I was doing at the Varney residence.
I’ve never had so many keys until I came to South Africa. If I were paranoid and lived my life on constant high alert, I would encounter during my morning routine enough locks to bedevil even the most talented escape artist. To leave my house in the morning, I would in theory have to first unlock my closet to pick out my clothes, unlock my bedroom door, unlock the front door, unlock the metal gate right outside the front door, unlock the garage to get to my bike, unlock my bike, unlock the front gate to let myself out of my compound, ride through the streets on my bike to Howard’s, unlock Howard’s front gate, open his garage door, unlock his front door, punch in the house security code, and then unlock the door to the office. All told I have nine different keys on my key ring, counting the electronic gadget that opens Howard’s gate and garage.
Every house feels like its own little Green Zone, fully operational to keep the bad guys out. With so much security, Johannesburg seems like a city under siege from itself. One almost expects to see roving groups of armed bandits raising cain, robbing and pillaging Mad Max style, with the walls, locks, and electric fences the only thing keeping civilization alive in the homes of the people.
But that’s perhaps the most perplexing part of the situation – there’s almost no one on the streets. Because Johannesburg is so spread out nearly everyone drives, so to see a pedestrian in the suburbs is quite rare. Despite the quiet and serenity, each home remains decked out like Fort Knox. I suppose there is still the chance of a burglar breaking in, but with such high levels of criminal deterrence I would assume that most crooks have decided to ply their illicit trade in other cities.
I sometimes think that the massive amounts of security are something of a holdover from the past. To be sure, crime is certainly a problem in Johannesburg, but in the early nineties, during the chaos of Apartheid’s fall, crime was on a level nearly unimaginable. Killings were frequent as security forces clashed with protesters and African movements violently vied with one another for power. Bombings were not infrequent. Given that the white minority had come to appreciate a standard of living not far removed from the United States, Johannesburg must have felt like a city on the edge of anarchy. In many ways it was. That minority naturally reached out for increased security to protect them against the dangers of the world around them. I do not know if such levels of security are entirely necessary today, but who would want to be the first to take down the electric fence or lower the wall? To do so would make your house the number one target for any remaining robbers or burglars. Better then to keep the security high just in case.
I do think that there is hope, though. In addition to the optimism expressed by some of my friends here, I’ve had a positive crime-free experience so far. My house has no electric perimeter, no wall, and only the flimsiest of fences surrounding it. Thus far we’ve had no crime, which I take as a sign that Johannesburg will not always be need to be walled in against itself.