Making sense of siege architecture and private security in middle-class residential neighbourhoods in Johannesburg – Fellows’ seminar by Martin Murray

6 May 2019

“Johannesburg is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Crime rates have remained high since the 1990s. ‘Crime talk’ – rumour, gossip and hearsay – has become routine in everyday conversation. In middle-class residential suburbs, the signs of ‘siege architecture’ are everywhere: high walls, razor wire, security gates, electric fencing, and the ubiquitous warnings promising ‘Armed Response’ and ‘Zero Tolerance’. These neighbourhoods have become highly securitised zones where the visible presence of private security patrol vehicles is only matched by the almost complete invisibility of public law enforcement. Why did this situation come about? Was it the abdication of duties and responsibilities of public policing agencies to provide security? Was it the inevitable outcome of neoliberal policies?”

These are some of the issues tackled by Martin Murray of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan in a presentation to STIAS fellows. Murray is working on a book titled Panic City, part of a trilogy on Johannesburg, and outlined his ideas about the security networks, private policing and law enforcement in the older residential suburbs of the Northern Suburbs – “Areas developed by the Rand Lords from about 1910 onwards”.

He described Johannesburg as “not an easy place to be” and shared anecdotes from his fieldwork in the city stretching over six or seven years.

M Murray - 1 STIAS fellow Martin Murray during her seminar presentation on 25 April 2019

“Observing high walls, electric fencing, and ‘armed response’ signage triggered my curiosity,” he said. “To make sense of these, it’s necessary to penetrate below the surface – to excavate what has remained hidden. I began at the ground level, looking for coherent patterns and enduring relationships.”

“My methodological approach is montage, or piecing together disparate pieces of fractured stories,” he continued. “I engage in ‘story-telling’ as an exercise designed not to expose the truths of crime and policing, but to gesture toward the everyday experience of habitation and dwelling in times of uncertainty and risk.”

In so doing he arrived at a number of concepts which provide the basis for his arguments. He first addressed the issue of alarmist fantasies and crime talk, and pointed to the scarcity of data to substantiate the rumour and gossip.

“From 1997/8 the city refused to release crime statistics,” he said. “It’s also known that some of the statistics are manufactured – either by the police themselves to reduce the statistics in their precincts or because people lie about crime to collect on insurance.”

“There is also fabrication – for example, pushing the idea that crime is mostly committed by foreigners or complicit insiders like domestic workers.”

“These fantasies and paranoia allow over-dramatic representations of the threat of crime leading to drastic commercial/marketing solutions from the private security industry.”

“Many security companies frame their role in militarist fashion. Many are staffed by ex-military from other countries or ex-mercenaries, they use military ranks and language, and describe themselves as fighting a war. One example is the use of the term ‘Bravos’ – which refers to two or more young, black men – used throughout the South African Police as well.”

He described the move away from the public law enforcement to the private security sector which began in the 1990s.

“The rules of engagement in private security are shoot to kill not law enforcement. They aim to disperse crime from one area to another. Patrolling the neighbourhoods and literally kicking suspected criminals out. In the South African context this translates to removing young, black people from suburban areas – sometimes violently – with no respect for their civil or legal rights.”

“It’s basically a dehumanisation of people by bullies and thugs. ‘If it looks like a criminal, treat it like a criminal.’ There is no separation between the guilty and innocent. It depicts the young, black and unemployed as a criminal class.”

“Private security has homogenised the people on the streets.”

Technological solutions

He described the features of the extended security networks in these suburbs.

“In many areas neighbourhood streets are closed off. This was initially illegal but subsequently allowed by the municipalities.”

“Because the weakest link in any security is humans, sophisticated technological solutions are used – including motion detectors, sirens, gates, gas and CCTV cameras – currently 15 000 are being installed in Johannesburg which is more than in London – all working off algorithms including facial recognition.”

He described extensive use of township informants, ‘pretend homeless’ people who patrol neighbourhoods and the use of domestic staff as eyes and ears.

He also explored some aspects of the relationship between private and public security initiatives. “I have tried to develop a more theoretical understanding of the state and its approach to law and order but so far unsuccessfully,” he said.

“The police generally seem to welcome private security. They often do the police’s dirty work – one example of this is the Red Ants.”

“The SAPS cops get the arrest credit – so it’s a trade-off.”

Some of the private security companies also encroach on areas like forensics and monitoring of legal processes to ensure prosecutions by ‘following the docket’.

In discussion Murray addressed the issue of race from both angles. “These neighbourhoods are not exclusively white,” he said. “There is a growing black middle class – but from what I’ve seen they share similar sentiments around protecting self and property with their white counterparts.”

“In South Africa it’s hard to rigidly divide race and class into separate categories – they map on to each other – so it’s hard to exclude the race aspect. The majority of the population is marginalised. Unemployed poor generally equals black and, in this context, potentially criminal.”

He acknowledged the overall absence of the state in areas like security, health and education, and the corresponding growth of private-sector capacity and capability. He also acknowledged the need for greater comparison with other areas, like townships and rural areas, as well as other countries especially other developing world cities in Africa and Latin America many of which face similar issues.

“You can’t afford to look at this issue in neoliberal terms,” he added. “The monopoly of the legitimacy of violence is gone. There never was a golden age when the state had that monopoly in South Africa. The state was never coherent. It was always reactionary and aggressive.”

“The common thread that runs through these concepts is the struggle to construct order and certainty in the midst of disorder and uncertainty.”

“The counter narrative would be the responsible citizenship ideal,” he continued, “enlisting citizens into the system, building communities and shared spaces where security is everyone’s responsibility.”

“But,” he added, “this still absolves the state from dealing with the real issues.”

“The war being fought is actually against the black poor – and the real issues are inequality, unemployment and lack of opportunities.”

 Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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