When evidence gets personal: The role of evidence in choices about residential safety in South Africa

By Dr Yvonne Erasmus




The idea for this blog originated in my love for Sunday afternoon strolls through the neighbourhood. I live in an area of Johannesburg that lends itself to people being outdoors, if this is what you enjoy. There are tree-lined streets and occasional pedestrian walkways, enjoyed by cyclists, joggers, dog-walkers, and those stretching their legs.

But Sunday afternoon strolls have become increasingly frustrating because of the proliferation of boomed-off streets in the area – this is when residents obtain permission from local government to regulate access to a public road through a combination of locked gates, boom-gates/barriers and security guards, for reasons of safety and security. There are many variations to this model, but the version that is the subject of this blog is when pedestrian access is severely restricted, especially during the day. This means that once you’ve entered a street you have to exit at the same place, which makes very little sense if your destination is not within the enclosed area. The increase in boomed-off/restricted access/gated communities in our area made me think about the link between evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM) and personal safety. Where I consider the area to be ‘safe enough’ to go for walks, others clearly regard it as ‘dangerous enough’ to want to restrict access. This made me wonder how different people living in the same geographical space have come to such different conclusions. Have we (residents of these streets who request that access be restricted, government officials granting this permission, and those who are frustrated by these efforts) considered the evidence?

That’s when the waters got murky as I realised I needed to ask questions such as ‘what evidence’, ‘by whom’, ‘under which circumstances’, ‘for which outcome’, ‘from whose point of view’? I must admit that my understanding of the answers to these questions in relation to restricted access areas is still limited, but here’s what I know so far.

Let’s assume for a moment, to simplify things, that there are three groups of protagonists in this scenario: me (a resident not living in a gated community), residents who live in such boomed-off streets, and a local government official (and committee) who are involved in granting permission for access to be restricted.

The evidence that is influencing my view is first of all Chapter 2 of the South African Constitution – the Bill of Rights. Section 12(1) states that “Everyone has the right to freedom and security of the person, which includes the right (c) to be free from all forms of violence from either public or private sources”, while section 21(1) in turn states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement”. In their 2004 public hearing on road closures, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) concluded that these security measures should not hinder or deny people’s access to public places and that “there is generally no reliable evidence to suggest conclusively that the erection of booms and the closure of roads enhance safety and security” (p.5). This poses interesting questions such as: (i) whether these conclusions about the efficacy of road closures still hold true ten years after this public hearing; (ii) whether the evidence base has changed over the last ten years; (iii) and what types of evidence it would require to pose a limitation on one right (freedom of movement) in order to prioritise another (security of person). In other words – when, in what circumstances, for what reasons, and based on what evidence, can my right to go for a walk on a Sunday afternoon in a public place be restricted?*

Upon contacting my local municipality about the basis on which decisions regarding restricted access in my neighbourhood are taken I was put in touch with a very helpful and knowledgeable government official who took my concerns seriously, explained the legal basis on which such decision are made (the Rationalisation of Local Government Affairs Act, No.10 of 1998), and shared the municipal policy and process that applicants must follow. What is still unclear to me though, and which I intend to explore further is: (i) why this legislation exists in the first place (i.e. what was the evidence that suggested that such legislation and restricted access would be an appropriate way in which to combat crime); and (ii) why this legislation exists when there are other means, for example the establishment of City Improvement Districts (CIDs)** to reach a similar outcome. CIDs are also regulated by law, but seem less restrictive.

I still don’t know the exact reasons behind specific road closures in my area as I need to go to the municipal office to view the applications and reasons for decisions. But for residents in these streets (our third group of protagonists) the evidence on which such applications are based is clearly quite personal. One such resident, upon becoming aware of my enquiry to local government (and coincidentally the enquiry of someone else in the neighbourhood) wrote us a heated email questioning “our right to send complaints to the council” when all the residents are trying to do is “secure themselves from unwanted scoundrels and illegal activity happening around their houses”. We were urged to “accept the changes and live with them, or move out of the area!” Looking past the many obvious things that are wrong with these statements, they did make me wonder about another dimension to evidence – personal experience. One house break-in, one car-jacking, one assault in ones’ own home is one too many – on this point there is no disagreement. But where does personal experience fit in the broad spectrum of sources of evidence, and will personal experience (and traumatic experiences) sometimes/always limit us in our search for alternative evidence-informed ways in which to protect ourselves, leading us to not think twice before literally putting up the fences? Or are there outcomes, such as personal safety and security, where the only evidence that matters is personal experience?

I am left with more questions than answers, but with the realisation that the reason(s) why my neighbours and I hold such different views is an even more interesting question than I had initially thought.

*I pose these questions in the context of recreational walking, but they are of course much more serious and sensitive if also considered, as the SAHRC did, against the historical backdrop of how movement was restricted prior to democracy in South Africa. And restricted access and the implications of this for getting from point A to point B can be quite serious for those who walk because they have no other means of transport.        

**City Improvement Districts (CIDs) are areas where residents and/or businesses contribute on a monthly basis to pay for services in addition to what the municipality provides, and then organise these services themselves. This is especially aimed at keeping the area clean (e.g. appointing cleaners), increasing safety (e.g. through security guards that are visible in area), and in some cases also has the aim of ‘place making’. CIDs can be residential, or mixed business and residential and the Rosebank (Rosebank Management District and Lower Rosebank Management District), the Sandton Business improvement District, and Legae La Rona in Berea are some examples of these.