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Walls and Fences

Updated on June 2, 2015

A walled city

Pretoria is a walled city, like most of the major cities in South Africa.

Walls and fences are the most noticeable features of the residential areas of these cities, at least the formerly "white" areas, and this gives one a clue to the reason for these walls and fences.

It is not a walled city in the traditional sense, but is rather a city of walled off areas, where relatively small groups of citizens live behind electric fences and remote-controlled gates.

These walls and fences are not constructed against foreign invaders, as the traditional city walls were, but against themselves.

Which has gotten me thinking about the proverbs about "good fences make good neighbours" and the human desire to separate, to cut people off from each other.

We use many rationalisations, like defence and crime, but are these really the reasons for these walls and fences.?

I guess it all comes down to fear - fear of those different from ourselves, fear of ambiguity, fear of change, fear of loss, and perhaps even fear of looking too deeply within ourselves.

The boundaries of the Pale of Settlement in Russia. Image from Wikipedia
The boundaries of the Pale of Settlement in Russia. Image from Wikipedia
Walls are used to keep out those who differ from us racially, religiously, as these Cathars being expelled from the ancient walled city of Carcassonne demostrate. Image from Wikipedia
Walls are used to keep out those who differ from us racially, religiously, as these Cathars being expelled from the ancient walled city of Carcassonne demostrate. Image from Wikipedia

The search for security

As people we look for security, for something that tells us we are not defenceless, not alone, not at risk. And yet, to live is to be at risk, to grow means to change, and as we grow we realise more and more that we are alone. We have to take responsibility for who and what we are, we can't blame anyone else, and that is somehow a fearful thing. We are alone because we are, each one of us, unique individuals, and the only real cure for this aloneness is to find others, to try to understand others, to find common cause with others in a project that is greater than our individuality.

And that is why I begin to question these walls and fences. Do they provide us with the security we want, do they give us opportunities to overcome our essential aloneness? As philosopher A.C. Grayling has noted, when there are walls separating people, "...they come together only to fight."

The result is that, to quote Grayling again, "The barriers make matters progressively worse, because as distance and ignorance increase it becomes harder for opponents to work their way back to mutual understanding, to reach compromises, and in them to make painful but essential concessions."

Walls and fences have separated people from the earliest of human settlement. In the archaeological record the oldest know walled city was that of Uruk, which was at its peak around 2900 BCE. It was a city of some 50000 people at that time, as far as can be determined, the biggest city in the world at that time. It was in the area now known as Iraq, a name which some think derives from the name Uruk.

The list of walled cities known since then runs into hundreds. The practice of walling off sections of cities or towns, however, most likely dates from the formation of ghettoes built to keep, particularly, Jews, in a place separated from other citizens. This practice reached apogees in Nazi Germany and, by way of the Russian empire, in the "Pale of Settlement" created by Catherine the Great in 1791. This development led to the progroms against Jews in the later 19th Century and on.

Charles Bell's rather fanciful painting of the landing of Van Riebeeck at the Cape in 1652
Charles Bell's rather fanciful painting of the landing of Van Riebeeck at the Cape in 1652
The modern day gates of the Company Gardens in Cape Town
The modern day gates of the Company Gardens in Cape Town
Do we have a wall-buiilding instinct? My daughter Caitlin's building with her Megablocks.
Do we have a wall-buiilding instinct? My daughter Caitlin's building with her Megablocks.

The need for boundaries

We in South Africa, of course, are experts at separation, from the first white settlers at the Cape in 1652 right up to the present day.

The leader of the Dutch settlement at Table Bay, Jan van Riebeeck,. was sent there to set up a garden to supply fresh produce to the Dutch ships which passed that way en route to India. One of his first acts, after establishing the garden, was to plant a hedge of almond bushes around it to keep the original inhabitants out. Apartheid was born.

Of course, the hedge failed, as have all attempts to separate people permanently anywhere in the world.

Is there a wall-building instinct built into our psyches as people? Certainly there is a need for us define ourselves in terms of who were are as individuals, which implies a kind of separation from others. Who am I as me, and who am I in relation to you? What is my place and worth in the world? These questions are natural and an important part of our being as humans. We cannot live without answers to these questions and how we find these answers is important as the answers define us.

Obviously these answers lead to what are called "boundaries" and these boundaries can be healthy and life-giving or destructive and life-denying.

These boundaries are important at micro-level (the personal boundaries) and at macro-level (boundaries between groups or nations or countries). Africa, a continent with manifold problems, is suffering from artificial boundaries imposed on people by the colonising powers in the 19th Century. These boundaries meant little or nothing to the people themselves, but were important for the colonising powers as they had to do with imperial prestige and the competition between the colonising powers. Africans became pawns in a bitter struggle about boundaries between the European powers, a situation in which they are still, to a large degree, trapped.

Psychological boundaries are life-giving to individuals and do not need to be life-denying between individuals or groups. If the boundaries are mutually agreed and understood, then they can be a source of peace and harmony - the proverb about "good fences making good neighbours" can be turned around to say that "good neighbours make good fences," a good fence being one that is mutually agreed and understood as opposed to imposed by one on another.

A typical high wall surrounding a residential complex
A typical high wall surrounding a residential complex
Some roads run between long, high walls in the suburbs
Some roads run between long, high walls in the suburbs

Dealing with ambiguity

More often, though, walls and fences, like proverbs, are attempts to "to free complex situations from ambiguity" as Wolfgang Mieder, Professor of German and Folklore at the University of Vermont, wrote in the 21st Katherine Briggs Memorial Lecture in November 2002.

This lecture is a fascinating study of the origins and history of the proverb which plays such a powerful role in Robert Frost's 1914 poem "Mending Wall":

There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors.'

The gates of some of the "security complexes" are imposing.
The gates of some of the "security complexes" are imposing.
Some stand-alone houses also look like castles. This one even overtly invites that comparison
Some stand-alone houses also look like castles. This one even overtly invites that comparison

Separation and security

Another factor of separation in South Africa, one which harks back to the ghetto, is those suburban areas found in most cities, which are euphemistically called "gated communities."

These in fact are ghettoes, ghettoes of the "haves" with security fences and walls meant to exclude the "have-nots," ghettoes of exclusion rather than inclusion. In apartheid South Africa they were exclusively white, but now that is no longer true, as more and more Blacks join the ranks of the "haves" and feel the need to protect their privileges. And to call them "communities" strains the meaning of that word to a huge degree.

What all these wall and security fences do is fragment further an already fragmented society, entrenching the deep divisions in a country which has a huge gap between poor and rich, one of the biggest in the world, as measured by the Gini coefficient, which in South Africa hovers around the 0.7 mark. (an equitable society would be more towards the 0.0 end of the scale which goes from 0.0 to 1.0, the higher the coefficient the greater the gap.)

So these walls also are in the long bound to fail, and indeed might increase levels of insecurity and violence. Because as security measures are increased, so will the ingenuity and resourcefulness of those determined to breach any such security.

As Grayling said in the same article quoted earlier, "The barriers make matters progressively worse, because as distance and ignorance increase it becomes harder for opponents to work their way back to mutual understanding, to reach compromises, and in them to make painful but essential concessions."

Walls and fences do not make good neighbours, they make fearful and jealous ones. The make neighbours who are bound to look for more and more physical security measures and thereby put their psychic health at risk to an intolerable degree.

Because really the only security we can have is the security that comes from knowing oneself, one's fears and hopes, and in recognising these in those around us. "Mutual understanding" is the key to peace and will not be found behind walls and fences.

Warning at the entrance to a "gated community"
Warning at the entrance to a "gated community"
The legal basis of a "gated community"
The legal basis of a "gated community"
Trying to soften the aggressive posture by prettyfying the entrance?
Trying to soften the aggressive posture by prettyfying the entrance?

Walls - unresolved historical issues?

Having said that, I know that people are risk-averse, and opening up to others is a risky business, so walls and fences are an easy answer in the short term.

To quote Grayling again, "When individuals get to know one another, it is usually impossible for them to like or hate each other on the basis merely of generalities about race, religion or history. To hate successfully, you must hate an abstraction — the totality of Arabs or Jews or whomever — because once you put a face to a person, and with it a home, children, an enjoyment of hamburgers or football, all abstractions melt."

I'm not sure that I fully believe that "all abstractions will melt" when we get to know the other person as an individual, but what I know for sure is that those abstractions become fixed in those who huddle in fear behind walls and fences.

Ironically, South Africans, and especially Afrikaners, were in the historical past more likely to agree with the old Cole Porter song, "Don't Fence Me In" (the lyrics for which were originally written by Montana based poet Robert Fletcher):

"Oh, give me land lots of land under starry skies above

Don't fence me in."

Indeed the early Afrikaners left the confines of the Cape colony in search of "land, lots of land" in an attempt to break away from the confines of law and order which the colonial authorities tried to put them into.

But of course that movement brought them into direct competition with the Black people, who were moving south and west as the Afrikaners moved north and east, with the inevitable result of more conflict and misunderstanding, a struggle between two opposing forces which seemed to the participants at the time, amenable only to a violent solution.

So the walls of today in Pretoria and elsewhere in South Africa express historic issues which have still not been resolved, more than 200 years later. Is it still true that it is only possible to really be oneself behind walls and fences?


The separation caused by apartheid led to many in South Africa musing about walls and fences - and using the metaphor in different ways. This poem by South African poet Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali is a powerful one.

Man is

a great wall builder -

the Berlin Wall

the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem

but the wall

most impregnable

has a moat

flowing with fright

around his heart.

A wall

without windows

for the spirit

to breeze through

A wall

without a door

for love to walk in.


One of the most evocative uses of the wall metaphor came out of apartheid-era South Africa in the form of a song written in 1987 by a conscript, a very unhappy conscript, in the South African Army which at that time was "defending" the South African borders against the forces of liberation led by, in the main, the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC is now the ruling party in South Africa, as it has been since the 1994 democratic elections.

This conscript doing his "border duty" was a young man called Dan Heymann, who just happened to be a musician. Heymann began writing music and words to express his anguish at being in an army which was fighting to defend what, to Heymann, was indefensible, the separation and oppression of Blacks in South Africa. The words of the song "Weeping" express the horror of forced separation and the inevitable violence needed to maintain the separation that was at the heart of the apartheid ideology:

He built a wall of steel and flame
And men with guns, to keep it tame
Then standing back, he made it plain
That the nightmare would never ever rise again
But the fear and the fire and the guns remain

Heymann, who now lives in New York, has written the following explanation of the metaphor in his song:

"The man referred to in the Weeping lyrics is the late P. W. Botha, one of the last white leaders of South Africa before the end of the Apartheid regime; The demon he could never face in the Weeping lyrics refers to the aspirations of the oppressed majority, while the Weeping lyrics also refer to the neighbors, literally the journalists from other countries who were monitoring the situation in South Africa.
That pretty much sums up the metaphorical content of the Weeping lyrics."

"Weeping" was recorded by the band Bright Blue, of which Hermann was a leading member, in 1987, at the height of the state of emergency declared by the apartheid regime in order to try to stem the rising tide of resistance to the apartheid state.

The recording, which included a strong instrumental reference to the anthem of the ANC, "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika", nevertheless quickly charted in South Africa, spending two weeks in the number one spot. It has since been covered many times, including at least two versions by popular US singer Josh Groban. A beautiful tenor sax solo is also a feature of the Bright Blue version of the song, played by the man who became identified with Abdullah Ibrahim's monster jazz hit "Mannenberg", the late great Basil Coetzee.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2010


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    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      9 years ago from South Africa

      Tina - thanks so much for stopping by and for the wonderful comment. I really appreciate it.

      Love and peace


    • Granny's House profile image

      Granny's House 

      9 years ago from Older and Hopefully Wiser Time

      This is so sad. I never knew it was like this. I am glad and thankful we do not have to live this way. The song Weeping. It is true, if you build walls or borders it will create violence.

      Thank you for sharing and all the hard work you put into Walls and Fences

      Your friend

      voted up!


    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Christine - Indeed insecurity and fear are horrible things to live with. We really need to understand, though, that a wall or a fence is not, as you say, the answer. There has to be a better way.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.

      Love and peace


    • mulberry1 profile image

      Christine Mulberry 

      10 years ago

      Although I suppose I would have a wall if I felt truly endangered, I agree whole heartedly they are no solution to existing problems and represent much of what is wrong in society. Unfortunately, here they continue to discuss a wall along our entire southern border. I understand the problems that create the concerns which make people want this, but I know there are better solutions.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Oscillation - thankis for visiting and commenting. I really appreciate it. Believe it or not I have yet to see District 9!

      Thoise little boxes sure don't work for me either!

      Love and peace


    • oscillationatend profile image


      10 years ago from a recovering narcissist.


      I truly appreciate the view from South Africa. Thanks for sharing such intimate's sad that it took the movie District 9 to ignite the wanting to learn more of this historical issue, but at least a movie did it's job.

      On another note, I've never been a fan of little boxes on a hillside, walled in places, electric fences....when the zombie apocalypse comes I don't need no freaking fence in my way while I take off in my car.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks everyone for commenting and sorry I haven't gotten around to thanking you before!

      Petra - your point in the last paragraph of your comment is well taken.

      Mr Happy - wow! you do me great honour, sir. Thank you very much.

      Love and peace


    • Petra Vlah profile image

      Petra Vlah 

      10 years ago from Los Angeles

      Walls are never the answer and neither are fences. Those forms of “protection” may detour for a moment, but they can’t stop anything; not ideas, not dreams, not fears or aspirations of the ones kept out and they are just as ineffective on protecting the ones who close themselves in.

      Build out of fear, walls proved ineffective all through history and it is amazing to see America and Israel trying to build new walls rather than solving the problems that create their “necessity”.

      More justice and less selfishness, a more equitable distribution of resources could be a starting point for giving up walls and start building bridges.

    • Mr. Happy profile image

      Mr. Happy 

      10 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      Well, your "wall" 'blog'"blows" mine right out of the sky lol It's great to see that you covered the subject (and did a much better job). Cheers!

      By the way, I heard Brazil is building a wall too, not exactly sure what that one is supposed to do.

    • MagicStarER profile image


      10 years ago from Western Kentucky

      Very well-written article, and thought-provoking, too. I suspect there is something to that point you made about humans naturally making walls or enclosures. I remember as kids, we made "houses" with leaves in the fall. We made walls, and rooms inside, using the leaves to divide the spaces. It is probably something innately "territorial" that we are born with.

      The problem is that others do not respect our "territory", and invade it to rob our things, or to cause harm.

      People need to respect the space of others. Perhaps if all had their own spaces, they would not be so inclined to invade that of others???

      Like I said - thought-provoking! thanks for making me think...

    • Catherine R profile image

      Catherine R 

      10 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      I was interested to read this Tony although I see you published it a while back. I agree - it is a dreadful way to live behind walls. But what is the answer when you have such hectic criminal activity? I am living freely now with no fences or gates and much of the time my front door is wide open. It is a pleasure to live like this but of course I miss my home country. But now my kids can ride their bikes in the road and enjoy the freedom that I had as a child. Perhaps you would read my hub on the South African refugee - I would be interested to hear what you think about it.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks for all the comments - they are appreciated.

      Walls separate us, keep us apart and I strongly believe that we are a social species and our future health is dependent on the health of our society, which means coming together in solidarity and shared commitment to values and community. Walls are a symbol of how far we are from realising human community, and yet it is only in community that we are fully human.

      As Steve Rensch mentions the same walls that keep unwanted people out also keep our neighbours out.

      It's not a case of blaming the victim - it's that walls and separation are inimical to our very humanity.

      The crime rate in South Africa is unacceptably high - my question is simply, are walls the answer? Apartheid tried and ultimately failed to keep us apart. Are we going to allow criminals to succeed where apartheid failed?

      Love and peace


    • Mary Neal profile image

      Mary Neal 

      10 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia, USA

      Thanks for this article. Your ideas are very thought-provoking. I often write about prisoner issues. Walls.

    • profile image

      Anthony James Barnett - author 

      11 years ago

      A very informative Hub. Well researched. Good stuff.

    • profile image

      Peter Kirstein 

      11 years ago

      A thought provoking and informative hub! Thanks Tony. Lesotho is known as a country without fences yet the city of Maseru is becoming increasingly like those in neighbouring South Africa - a city of walls and security fences. Sad!

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      11 years ago from Chicago

      This is a well written Hub. I don't know a thing about South Africa. But anybody with valuable possessions in South America would be a complete fool not to have walls or their stuff would only be there a few days—if they were not in fact kidnapped or killed in the middle of the night. Some men here in the States travel out of town for business and live behind walls so their wife and children have an extra layer of protection. I don't know about South Africa, but nobody here lives in a gated community to keep "others" out because "others" live behind those same walls. They do it for safety and to protect their property. I don't think we want to blame the victim for the level of crime.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      "Nice write up which took a lot of guts!"

      "Two thumbs up!"

      CEO E.S.A.H.S. Association

    • Jmell profile image


      11 years ago from El Paso, Texas, USA

      An interesting insightful Hub! I have a fence around my home, it's mainly to keep my dogs from visiting the neighbors homes when I let them outside.

    • Steve Rensch profile image

      Steve Rensch 

      11 years ago

      Another great hub, Tony. The wall which keeps out your neighbor and all his dangerous ways is the same wall which keeps that neighbor from coming to help you against other dangers. Our only safety lies in union and collectivity. "Independence" and separation leave us all vulnerable.

    • Gypsy Willow profile image

      Gypsy Willow 

      11 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      What a sad way to live, quite opposite the American suburb with unfenced front yards. I visited Peru some years back. Not only did just about everyone have high walls around their homes, but most upmarket homes had their own armed guard at the entrance. How lucky we are if we do not have to live this way.

    • hafeezrm profile image


      11 years ago from Pakistan

      Very informative. I was there in 1999 and I can say there is need for walls for security around a particular sector. The position was worst in Johannesburg where I one could not dare to move in the market.

      I have also seen residential areas in Los Angeles where there were no fences even separating one house from another. If one steps out in the backyard, it would be difficult to point out when the boundaries end and that of neighbor's begin.


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