The Highveld’s disturbing dreamworlds

Across the Highveld the fusion of paranoia and conspicuous consumption is concretised in evermore excessive, and militarised, enclaves for the rich. Segregation has been privatised.

He gestured with a long arm at the villas on the hillside, secure behind their surveillance cameras. ‘I’ve lived here for two years and I’m still not sure if the place is real… 
– JG Ballard, 1996

Gated communities and enclaves, high walls and barbed wire sprawl across Gauteng. From the palatial estates of the elite to modest flat complexes, living spaces are organised for security and against the perceived dangers of the surrounding cityscape. Daily life becomes a regime of pin codes, guard posts and surveillance technology. 

But these hostile exteriors are intended to sustain a happy, prosperous lifestyle inside the walls, free of the dangers outside. The promotional material for the exclusive Steyn City development promises its elite customers “something that up until this point did not exist anywhere on the African continent – a parkland residence founded on the principle of community, and the quality of life. An ideal lost in today’s urban living. On offer will be a unique village lifestyle, centered on quieter and simpler times not yet seen in Johannesburg’s fast paced and high-pressure environment [sic].”

A similar language is used to promote more humble dwellings. Cosmopolitan Projects, which markets bottom-end property developments, promises “world-class model cities … great security and a friendly suburban lifestyle – a place to call home”. 

The term “security estate” is loosely used in South Africa to define a range of spaces, from huge private developments to small housing and flat complexes. But they are all sold on the premise that they offer not merely safety, but a packaged lifestyle. Developers have coined numerous terms to describe the experience on sale. Listing websites for housing in Gauteng promote golf estates, urban estates, residential country estates, equestrian estates and mature lifestyle estates. A prominent variation is the eco estate, marketing proximity to endangered plants and wildlife. 

The sky is always blue

Developers promote the idea that they are building spaces that reflect the most profound desires of their clients. To entice buyers, visual simulations are offered of the kind of lifestyle they can expect to enjoy. Cosmopolitan Projects (with the slogan, “Real houses for real people”) uses composite images of couples or families striding confidently into their cozy new homes. The sky is always blue, the grass abundantly green and the children playing. 

Enclaves are given mythical titles like “Avalon” to hint that they are a paradise of sorts, or named for real-world aspirational locales such as “Palm Springs” and “Beverly Hills”. In their introduction to the collection Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism, Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk write that “today’s luxury-themed environments – including city-sized supermalls, artificial island suburbs and faux downtown lifestyle centres – function as alternative universes for privileged forms of human life”.  Such “dreamlands of consumption and exclusion are iterations of an imagined California lifestyle as a global phantasmagoric ideal, which the nouveaux riche pursue with the same desperate zeal in the deserts of Iran and the hills of Kabul as they do the gated suburbs of Cairo, Johannesburg and Beijing”.

However, the pursuit of the walled lifestyle crosses class lines. Developers such as Cosmopolitan increasingly incorporate aesthetics and organisational models from the elite enclaves, promoting a mass market version of the security estate.

Although estates are sold as oases of tranquility and freedom, the marketing makes sure to let buyers know that they are under the protection of military-grade technology and constant guarding. Rather than downplaying this, developers actively highlight it with G4S, an international company that guards many South African estates, offering “bespoke systems” for the market. Another newspaper report noted that Steyn City is where “children will be able to play without any fears” thanks to “high-tech security systems as well as a large deployment of security personnel”.

The estate market grows off the back of legitimate concerns about the brutal violence that haunts South African society. But beneath the talk of community and play, the fusing of security paranoia and conspicuous consumption reflects its own disturbing social trends. 

Privatising segregation

In the past, racial segregation was brutally enforced through pass laws and other measures to restrict public access to urban spaces. Writing in 2005, geographer Richard Ballard observed that security estates effectively privatised tactics used by the apartheid state for commercial ends. But rather than enforcing racial segregation, the upper and middle classes are now shielded from the poor. As journalist Lynsey Chutel puts it, this creates “pockets of development walled off from South African socio-economic reality”. While the more lavish estates now even offer on-site schools and clinics, the majority outside struggle to access basic services from government. The effect is to further entrench economic apartheid, and erode a sense of shared citizenship.  

While class stratification is especially blatant in South Africa, it is also indicative of a global shift towards what sociologist Bryan Turner calls the “enclave society”, where governments and private agencies fixate on regulating and immobilising the movement of people. This resonates with dark cultural visions of cities as dens of dysfunction and disease, the home of the dangerous racial or class “other”. Marketers have cannily exploited these fears. For example, in marketing material, SUVs are presented as mini-tanks that safely move their drivers from workplace to lifestyle estate without them ever having to step into the dangerous outside. This gated social paradigm feeds back into racist and xenophobic politics. Notice, for example, how Donald Trump energised his support base with the slogan, “Build the wall”.

In the wake of climate change and growing economic inequality, this fortressing can only intensify. Gated communities, with expanded surveillance and border and police militarisation, offer a glimpse into what American journalist Christian Parenti starkly calls the “politics of the armed lifeboat”, where rich people and countries create islands of fortified prosperity while the rest of the world descends into chaos.

The end point of this enclaving was bleakly portrayed in Johannesburg-raised filmmaker Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium (2013). In this future, the elite orbit Earth in an opulent space habitat while the surface has become an endless global slum. Although it is a fictional extrapolation, this scenario has a disturbing imaginative plausibility. Several exposés in the past year have revealed a culture of doomsday prepping in Silicon Valley, with paranoid investors buying land in New Zealand to ride out the collapse of civilisation in style. The fascination that technology to extend life and colonise space holds for plutocrats such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Peter Thiel reflects a similar desire to secede from the grimy realities of life.

The sci-fi schemes of tech oligarchs may seem a world away from a Midrand golf estate, but they share the desire to escape from the chaos of wider society through the similar solution of walling off into a secured space that offers community and peace of mind. But, as the resentful rise of far-right populism or the normalising of xenophobia in local political discourse show, this desire for stability can easily be channeled into sinister political projects.  It is also worth noting that the perception of absolute stability is itself illusory,  with the murders committed by Oscar Pistorious and  Henri Van Breeda showing that  estates are hardly exempt from the violence which suppurates through South African society.

The security community is offered as a solution to social ills for those who can afford it. The retreat into them may be actively eroding empathy with the poor majority and preventing integrated solutions to problems of violence and socioeconomic exclusion. Creating a country of enclaves prevents us from thinking of creative forms of mass joy and communal luxury. The acceptance that peace and order can be obtained only in privatised, securitised and curated spaces builds an ultimate wall around the social imagination.

McMichael is a writer based in Johannesburg. He has a PhD in politics. 

An earlier version of this text was originally prepared for the Infinity Studio Residency by Kampnagel and Bubblegum Club, which saw invited artists from various disciplines explore the meaning and everyday operation of privatisation, militarisation and escapism in South Africa’s urban landscape.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.