SMOKE: Fancy A Boom Gate?

Originally published: 29 March 2005

You may have heard the details of a report published by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) a couple of weeks ago, in which the commission ruled that boom gates and road closures were consitutional after receiving numerous public complaints to investigate their legitimacy.

In case you're not South African and actually live in a relatively crime-free country - boom gates are access control points to various suburbs (at this stage only in Johannesburg and Tshwane/Pretoria), which control who can and cannot enter a suburb.

People are stopped at the gates and their purpose questioned before being allowed to continue into the suburbs. The residents of the area fork out to pay for the gates and the security company that operates them.

Sounds horrific, does it not? A certifiable violation of human rights, not so?

The reason for boom gates is the rampant crime in this country - or so we're told. In reality a lot of boomed areas have controlled access to their suburbs based on skin colour - if you're white you're in; if you're black you're not.

Which is obviously not acceptable.

So the SAHRC was asked to investigate whether these boom gates and closed roads were constitutional, and the commission found that they were, but said they did not support the use of them.

They recommend that all alternative security measures be exhausted before considering boom gates, because the commission was of the view that "based on the information it has, these measures cause social division, dysfunctional cities and lead to the further polarisation of our society".

They went on to say that the use of such gates has the potential to (and in some cases does) violate a number of human rights, and that they aren't a proven crime reduction measure anyway.

But a representative of an East Rand security consultancy - Safety Zone - said there was "hardly a single incident where there was not a 98 percent reduction of crime (in boomed areas)".

Naturally they'd say that - they're a bloody security company, for crying out loud. Does that mean they're wrong, though? I don't know.

All of which means that boom gates (for now) will continue, as they fall within legislation which allows for access restrictions in suburban areas - including road closures.

But there's a bunch of unhappy people, which means the issue isn't going to just go away.

Truth be told I've never even seen a boom gate, much less passed through one. That's because I live in Cape Town where there are no boom gates, although I read a report last year which stated that Cape Town was formulating a policy which would allow applications for gated communities.

They were going to wait for the SAHRC findings before implementing a final strategy, and said they would be guided by the commission recommendations.

Now that the recommendations have been published (which include - strongly - an advisory not to resort to gated communities, but rather to "consider and exhaust alternate access restrictions, including guards and guard houses, traffic calming measures and closed circuit television"), I wonder what the City of Cape Town will do...

Still - despite not having to contend with the levels of crime prevalent in Johannesburg and surrounding areas, I've had my fair share of crimes perpetrated against me in every town or city I've ever lived in, and I've always been a believer of the rights of individuals - and thus I have an opinion on it all.

Here's what hit hard the other day: a family friend was visiting from England, where she's lived for 16 years (she was born and raised in South Africa, but married an Englishman and moved there with him).

Naturally the discussion murmured its way towards crime and she told us a story about a South African friend of hers who had had a conversation with a Brit about her daughter, who had been robbed at knifepoint.

The Brit was horrified when she said it was all a good thing because her daughter wasn't raped or killed - she just handed over her purse and phone and was allowed to go free.

It's a shocking thing when the highlight of your day is the fact that although your daughter was robbed with a knife in her face, hey - at least she wasn't killed.

And it's true - I had a discussion with Tashi the other day in which she was chatting away merrily about the low crime in our area, until I reminded her that last year she was in the shopping mall a stone's throw away while a gun battle between security guards and a cash transit heist gang raged over her head, bullets zipping and zinging all over the place as people flung themselves to the floor or scurried into shops to hide.

I reminded her of the bloke who ran through our garden after robbing the house behind us, and I pointed out the electric fence on our neighbour's wall and the spotlight of the police helicopter combing our area at night.

Yet she's perfectly right - it's a low crime area. We feel perfectly safe.

As an exercise we sat down and tried our level best to think of one person we know - just one - in South Africa who has not been a victim of a crime - and we couldn't think of one. And we know people of all cultures and upbringings all over the country.

It's been this way for as long as I can remember. I can still remember my mother - one day before giving birth to my sister - charging down Whitehead Road in Uitenhage after a thief who had nicked clothing from our washing line. That was when I was five years old, but I still remember it. There were plenty of other crimes in Uitenhage.

Over the six or seven years I lived in Pretoria our house was burgled at least 15 times, and every house I've lived in in Cape Town has been burgled a few times.

I've had guns pointed in my face three times and am extremely lucky to still have a head. I've been assaulted - with and without weapons - and had two attempted muggings directed at me.

And I've gotten away lightly. There's something wrong with that.

So I'm afraid I support the use of boom gates, as segregationist as they may seem. I don't support their use for segregation, however - merely as a means of reducing crime, if indeed they do.

There are two sets of human rights going on here. The first is the right of all people to go where they will, and not be denied access to exclusive areas. The second is the right of people to protect themselves, their families and their possessions.

The dilemma is heightened by the segregationist history of our country, especially seeing as they're mostly only in exclusive suburbs - which are largely populated by white people.

At the same time the vast majority of criminals in this country are black - not because they're black, but because 1. the vast majority of people in South Africa are black, and 2. because of the social condition wrought upon black people by a hundred years of organised racism.

So essentially boom gates are closing in white areas to protect the decent folks in them from black criminals - not the image we want for our new democracy.

Since there have been numerous allegations of access control based on skin colour (it's a bad hangover from apartheid years - if white folks spot an out-of-place black person they assume the latter is up to no good) - the image of boom gates are further tarnished.

But we need to remember that this is a new country - despite the remnants of our legacy that will continue for many generations yet, as unpleasant as that may be. And in this new country of ours people are supposedly equal (by law anyway), which means there is no longer such a thing as "white suburbs".

Oh - there are plenty of suburbs which are almost exclusively "white". But not legally so - they just haven't yet been populated by black people. They will be in time.

Which means we are just assuming that it is only white people who need protection from crime, which is a racist position in itself. Crime isn't perpetrated against race, for the most part - crime is perpetrated against people with something of value, no matter what the colour of their skin.

If you are a rich black man you are just as much a target for a criminal as a rich white man.

So I don't like the use of boom gates in that they definitely create an image of a divided place, but if they do effectively curb crime then I am all for them.

It is the responsibility of government to reduce what is universally accepted as a ridiculously high crime rate across the country, and if they fail to do that - as they have - then all personal security measures should be encouraged.

I value more highly the right of someone to protect themselves than the right of someone not to be stopped at a gate.

A friend of mine woke up to find a knife at his throat; a girl at my school was savagely gang-raped in her home - am I supposed to allow for the possibility of that just because someone feels ostracised by a boom gate?

Sort the crime out and we can have a free society where boom gates are not necessary.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

Look at me now - all the way from Uitenhage to the bright lights of the big internet.

Find out more using the handy links provided.

Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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