Behind the iron gates

New SABC series The Estate belongs to a rich pop-culture tradition of stories about elite enclaves that attempt to keep crime out, only to find savagery within their high walls.

In the first episode of The Estate, a new SABC 3 telenovela, viewers are given a glimpse of daily life behind “the iron gates” of the Echelon gated community. 

Ambitious entrepreneur Solumuzi Phakathwayo (played by Sdumo Mtshali) wakes up in his lavish family home and goes for a jog through the impeccably maintained streets of a high-tech oasis of affluence and tranquility. But this idyll is interrupted by an awkward encounter with elder Shadrack Mokobane (played by Don Mlangeni Nawa), one of the ground staff from the neighbouring township of Thembalethu. A decade earlier, Phakathwayo organised a deal that resulted in the estate being built on land that belonged to Mokobane’s community. 

The groundkeeper is suspicious and resentful of the younger man, staring at him blankly when he yells a greeting as he runs past. This brief interaction highlights the class tensions that undergird elite, securitised spaces such as Echelon. Using the soap opera format of family dramas and terrible secrets, The Estate directly explores fraught issues such as land dispossession. 

The opening scenes show protesters being mistreated by security personnel clearly modelled on the infamous Red Ants, the employees of a private South African security and eviction services company who often use excessive force and violence when removing impoverished people from land or buildings. The protest is over the removal of graves. This alludes to a real-life incident at Dainfern, one of the most exclusive gated communities in the country. As noted by urban researcher Renugan Raidoo in his contribution to Anxious Joburg, Dainfern disinterred more than 300 graves and dumped the bodies in waterlogged mass graves. 

Gated fantasies and realities 

Gated estates are prominent in South Africa. A general fear of crime and violence, which often runs along well-worn lines of race and class, means that fortress architecture is common throughout the country, from access-controlled buildings to road closures in suburbs. 

But so-called lifestyle  estates are specifically  marketed at the wealthy. The perception that public spaces are too dangerous has been fuelled by the rhetoric of politicians and media moral panics about crime and disorder. This makes the idea of suburban life under 24/7 armed guard highly attractive to those who can afford it. These gated estates are marketed not only on fear, but also on the desire for a planned and controlled life. “Eco-estates” are presented as a return to bucolic nature, while golf estates are depicted as recreational havens. They are promoted through glossy advertising, Instagram influencers and lifestyle television shows, which offer vicarious looks into the “fabulous homes of the rich”. 

As a global phenomenon, fortified enclaves are insulated from but still dependent on wider society, as seen in how their upkeep relies on an impoverished labour force of security guards and domestic workers. A film like La Zona (2007), set in a gated enclave in Mexico City, shows how the security architecture, constant surveillance and stark barriers between the haves and have-nots are a global concern. 

These spaces breed fear, elitism and hostility to outsiders. As United Nations-Habitat executive director Joan Clos said in 2014, instead of building security, they are intensifying racial and class disparities and fuelling social alienation. “The outcome is that the urban pattern becomes more segregated, more differentiated. This is not socially admirable or economically productive … The ideal city is not one with gated communities, security cameras, a futuristic scene from Blade Runner, dark and dramatic, with profound unhappiness … We need to at least build a city where happiness is possible and where public space is really for everybody,” he said.

Gated estates also reveal a gap between the airbrushed fantasies of public relations marketers and a more chaotic underbelly. Despite their secure reputations, estates can also be places of crime and mayhem. A video of a street brawl in Joburg’s Kyalami Estate became a viral sensation in 2020. Meanwhile, there have been multiple cases of homes in KwaZulu-Natal estates being used to manufacture and distribute heroin and Mandrax. 

Former athlete Oscar Pistorius killed Reeva Steenkamp in the Silver Woods Country Estate in 2013. Henri van Breda murdered his parents and brother in the De Zalze Golf Estate in 2015. These perpetrators both claimed that criminal intruders were involved, using the fear of crime to try to legitimate their brutal acts of violence. They also implied that these imaginary attackers were Black men, specifically. This shows how South African racial and segregationist fears and psychopathologies overlap with the security paranoia of walled communities.   

Gated estates are marketed as dreamlike pleasure domes, which allow residents to live in a utopian present of constant comfort and security. In a 2018 Top Billing feature on the R250 million home of developer Douw Steyn and his wife Carolyn, the centrepiece of the Steyn City estate, the viewer is taken inside their gigantic villa, the kitsch style of which rivals one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. While the reclusive Douw doesn’t appear on camera, Carolyn speaks about how this vast domain encourages a sense of community while being interviewed on a golf course completely devoid of people. The voice-over describes how “each room in the villa is like a film set”, with the owners as its leading stars. 

Lifestyle magazine show Top Billing presented this grandiose self-absorption as a goal to which to aspire. In contrast, filmmakers and writers have long pondered the dark side of life in security enclaves.

Urban fear

There has been a marked trend since the 1970s towards building enclave spaces, from mega malls to corporate office parks. As historian Steve Macek says, a growing cultural fear of urban spaces encouraged this. Conservative politicians and the mass media whipped up moral panic about street crime and general disorder, presenting fortified suburbs as the only refuge from murderous urban centres.

Hollywood films played a major role in building this perception. Vigilante movies such as the Death Wish series (1974-1994) showed cities as lawless wastelands full of street punks and savage killers. In the 1980s, a new type of  “yuppie horror” movie, such as Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), focused on white-collar protagonists having to flee from cities overrun by the “dangerous lower classes”.

For right-wingers such as science fiction authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, gated spaces were a way for gifted elites to thrive. Their book Oath of Fealty (1981) is about the creation of a neo-feudal development called Todos Santos, built within a crime-plagued future Los Angeles. The authors, who would later become advisers to the militaristic Ronald Reagan administration, expressed the right-wing dream of retreating into “armed country clubs”, fortified against people perceived as their social inferiors. 

More subversive creators questioned the social cost of retreating into enclaves. In David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975), a fancy Canadian apartment building becomes the site of twisted scientific experiments and disturbing group behaviour. In English novelist JG Ballard’s High-Rise, published the same year, an experimental enclave outside London descends into open warfare between the different floors. 

Ballard continued his exploration of enclaves in a series of books: Running Wild (1988), Cocaine Nights (1996) and Super-Cannes (2000). H20 Productions announced in 2008 a since-cancelled film adaptation of Running Wild, starring Samuel L Jackson, that was to be filmed in the Western Cape. In these works, the inhabitants of security estates become increasingly unmoored from reality and begin to experiment with transgressive violence and fascist politics. For Ballard, the real cost of living a life of total security is the loss of social cohesion and a paranoid, lethally destructive hatred of outsiders. 

In her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, Canadian novelist Magaret Atwood projected the enclave logic into the near future. In the book, the wealthy – and those whose talents are valued by capitalism – crowd into gated spaces while society collapses and burns around them. From the safety of their cyber-feudal castles, the inhabitants develop a voyeuristic attitude towards the world around them, playing video games that revel in war and human suffering.  

But other works, such as the 2000s teen drama The O.C. (2003-2007), presented a less dystopian version of life inside gated communities. While revelling in the opulence of its wealthy California setting, The O.C. also mocked the shallowness, snobbery and underhanded business tactics of the rich. The show inspired a wave of reality shows, such as the Real Housewives of Orange County (2006-present), which promised to lift the curtains on life behind high walls. But these lacked the wry class commentary of The O.C., instead glamourising consumerism and extreme entitlement. 

Director George A Romero imagined a  gated estate of the post-apocalyptic future in Land Of the Dead (2005), in which the elite community Fiddler’s Green is set up to survive a zombie outbreak that has destroyed civilisation. The name Fiddler’s Green refers to folklore about a land of endless joy. In the film, the greed and myopia of the rich lead to the enclave’s downfall. As film historian Jamie Russell writes, rather than being capitalism’s salvation, the fortified bunker becomes its tomb. 

In recent years, reports have emerged of the ultra-wealthy building real-life, post-apocalyptic bunkers. Meanwhile, the super-yacht market for massive personal vessels has thrived in the time of Covid-19, suggesting the eagerness of the rich to shield themselves from the rest of society. 

As the inequalities and disparities of capitalism increase, it seems as though reality is catching up with Ballard, Atwood and  Romero’s dark, satirical visions. The gated estate is a space that symbolises these contradictions, as the privileged remain terrified of the outside world.

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