The problem with high walls: Rethinking safety in the age of hyperalertness

People can’t always choose their level of security.

MBOMBELA – Prime the panic button, check the alarm, keep all doors locked at all times!

Bombarded with news of violent crime, average South Africans have been taught to be alert and protect themselves – even in their own homes.

Ms Barbara Holtmann, an expert in complex systems design, analysis and decision making, said the problem with high walls was that it made the people inside the yard invisible to their friends outside.

“Mostly it is isolation and fear which makes you vulnerable to crime.”

She explains that according to international safety standards, visibility and access makes a place safe.

“In safe communities people sacrifice privacy for safety. For instance, they share a garden or common space. Alertness is useful, but hyperalertness is not.”

Holtmann suggested that adopting a communal approach to security would go a long way towards increasing safety. “You can’t assume that having private security automatically makes you safe.”


“You have to balance security with your lifestyle,” she said. “Who wants to lock themselves in their houses? Who wants to live like that?

“To be a harder target you want criminal elements as far away from you as possible. You want to stop them on the boundary.”

The reality is that if someone wants to get into your house, there is only so much you can do to prevent them from doing so, she adds.

“The issue becomes that when you have too much security, the level of engagement goes up. It is only logical that people need guns to breach high levels of security.”

Holtmann believes that the victim being armed can escalate an already dangerous situation. “In how many break-ins are perpetrators specifically after the firearms in the house?

“Guns are used to threaten and intimidate. Generally there is little benefit for a robber in shooting.

“Once they have penetrated the perimeter, it is best not to engage at all. If they insist on engaging, cooperate. Or pretend to be asleep. Be sensible, think about what you are doing.”

If someone wants to get into your house, there is only so much you can do to prevent it.

If someone wants to get into your house, there is only so much you can do to prevent it.

Herself a victim of crime, Holtmann believes keeping a cool head kept her alive in her situation. “Try not to give in to a state of overwhelming fear.”

Mr André Snyman who founded eblockwatch in 2000 agrees that being community-minded is infinitely more useful than being fearful.

“Eblockwatch is built on relationships with a network of people you trust. Security revolves around loyalty.

“We have a symbiotic but informal relationship with SAPS. Community forums are the backbone of the police. The community is so much stronger.”

Eblockwatch uses technology and social media to mobilise communities and support groups to assist its members. “It is so easy and logical,” he said.

What started as a small WhatsApp group in Gauteng, currently has a network of close to 88 000 members across all their platforms.

The latest addition is Rover, a roaming country-wide network offering community support even when you are away from home by using your location to connect you with the group closest to you while travelling.

In safe communities people sacrifice privacy for safety.

In safe communities people sacrifice privacy for safety.

“If you see something or need help, you can post it on the group. The people receiving the message then mobilise their own networks, which include security companies and the police.

However, should you ever become a victim, treat your trauma symptoms, Holtmann advised. “Don’t allow it to fester into a state of hyper fear that controls you.”


She adds that a simple way to increase visibility is to put up lights which shine out from your property into the street when someone enters your property – it not only illuminates them but blinds them and not yourself.

On the other hand, people can’t always choose their level of security. The old or infirm and the poor are the most vulnerable to criminal elements.

“Small connections between neighbours could be the most useful,” Holtmann said. “I’m not saying have regular street braais, but build a community, break the isolation.

“If you have a small house, chances are that you live close to your neighbours and you can work together to put up an outside light. Be considerate, help your neighbour to cut the brush at their gate.”

A small community can also watch over one another easily.

“Older people become physically isolated from other people, as well as more anxious and less resilient. They feel more vulnerable.

“Make contact with them to reassure them. Make them useful – if they are home all day, they make natural surveyors.”

The problem with high walls is that it makes the people inside the yard invisible to their friends outside.

The problem with high walls is that it makes the people inside the yard invisible to their friends outside.

Snyman explains that eblockwatch has taken all these years to improve its technology to also make it safer for users.

“Information is filtered, which is one of the reasons the tools have taken us so long to get us where we are. We get in more information than we put out.”

Mireille de Villiers

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