All over South Africa, luxury residential complexes are springing up,
surrounded by high walls, electrified fences and razor wire, and
patrolled by security guards.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more prevalent and highly
visible than on the world-famous Garden Route, where golf, polo and
other estates are being built at an extraordinary rate.

Are such
developments a new form of apartheid, physically dividing communities
along lines of economic privilege, rather than of race like in the old
South Africa?

Environment writer John Yeld looks at the issue.

years into democracy, it's openly acknowledged that South Africa is
battling with transformation. That there have been significant changes
– not least in the environmental field – is undisputed, but there is
also wide agreement that the nature and pace of these changes are too
slow to meet the country's real needs.

Why then is the government
at all levels sanctioning development that not only does not promote
real transformation but that is – arguably – actually
counter-productive to transformation, as well as all too often being
environmentally unsustainable?

Evocative and heartfelt letters
published last month in local newspapers serving Garden Route
communities such as Plettenberg Bay, Knysna and Mossel Bay illustrate
this issue.

Written by the Southern Cape Land Committee, the
open letters were a "thank-you" to Agriculture and Land Affairs
Minister Thoko Didiza for raising concerns about people's access to,
and alienation from, land in general, and an appeal to impose a
moratorium on speculative land deals, particularly by foreigners,
pending a thorough investigation.

The committee, a non –
governmental organisation serving mainly the poor rural communities,
said the "incredible" number of golf courses in the area and the amount
of land and water being consumed by these developments had come into
the spotlight recently.

"If we continue at this unsustainable
rate, we are indeed heading for disaster, a future with insufficient
land or water," it warned.

The committee continued:"What has yet
to become a focus in this investigation is how these golf courses
affect people's lives, removing them from the land and often cutting
off access to the coast, neighbours or other resources."

people living on the Southern Cape coast now openly suggest that the
new golf, polo and other residential estates mushrooming on the Garden
Route constitute a new form of apartheid – this time, an economic
apartheid, where the wealthy barricade themselves in luxury laagers,
often hewn from beautiful but environmentally sensitive natural areas,
and where non-residents are only permitted during the day to perform
menial tasks before being sent out again as night falls.

This pattern of land use is directly contradicting efforts to transform South African society, they argue.

land committee said it had been contacted by numerous individuals,
civic associations, emerging farmers, farm dwellers, people seeking
land restitution and environmental groups, asking to combine efforts to
find ways to preserve land and natural resources in the area.

was because developments and the rapid sale of rural land were having a
devastating effect on rural communities, and particularly on

It pointed out that during the world-acclaimed
President's Cup golf tournament at Fancourt in George last year, the
media had reported huge profits being made by local estate agents.

"One can only but imagine how much of our valuable and precious land was sold to generate this profit.

one of the neighbours to the golf resort which hosted the tournament,
Mr Dambuza, continues to have his cattle impounded and becomes daily
poorer, as there is no affordable land for grazing."

committee said that opportunities provided by rural lifestyles for food
supplementation were being removed, rural cultures and traditions were
being lost in the rapid urbanisation, and families and communities were
being destroyed.

"We are busy creating urban ghettos where we
would (otherwise) be creating sustainable livelihoods." Environmental
lawyer Elbie Burger is co-chair of the Plettenberg Bay Community
Environment Forum, which monitors the scores of development proposals
in the area.

She says she's just as concerned, if not more
concerned, about the possible long-term negative social impacts of
large, elitist estates as about their biophysical and environmental
impacts, such as water use.

"It's not my speciality," she
admits, "but the signs are already there. The residents of these
estates put large fences around themselves, and psychologically they're
separate from the rest of society – inevitably, there's an elitist
aspect to it."

Developers block access to both wildlife and
ordinary people, and they have learned all the tricks needed to enforce
this, she suggests.

"They promise public access, but once their
development is in place, they claim some sort of major security threat
and close it down.

There are good examples of this."And often
these developments also abut a river or a lagoon or the sea and they
therefore also cut off public access to these places, and that is

One would hope that the government will take a
very strong stance on this issue – this 'controlled access' trend, it's

Plettenberg Bay mayor Euan Wildeman agrees that the
economic and social exclusivity of luxury estates is of concern to his

But, he argues, these type of developments benefit the
town because developers pay the cost of infrastructure installation and

Examples in Plettenberg Bay are the Goose Valley and
Turtle Creek golf estates and the huge Whale Rock residential
development overlooking the Robberg peninsula, he says.

look after their own roads, they maintain their internal services and
whatever – economically, it saves the municipality and ratepayers.

"But yes, it is a problem, because everyone else is now excluded from what was naturally part of the whole town."
Wildeman admits he does not have a solution.

the municipality tells developers it doesn't like the idea of their
developments being fenced off, the developers simply counter by citing
security threats and say they will then not pick up the tab for the
cost of roads, the sewerage system or the stormwater network, he says.

mean, I can't afford to put that kind of burden on ratepayers." Knysna
deputy mayor Andrew Finn agrees there's a huge divide between the
"haves" and the "have-nots" in the area, and his municipality is "very

"One of our principles for any development is that the public should continue to enjoy access," he says.

"Basically, each development gets looked at on its merits, and we definitely do not encourage closed developments."

example is the vetoed proposal by the developers of the Pezula golf
estate to close the public road leading to Noetzie beach, Finn says:
"We're insisting that it stays open."

He points out that Knysna had just adopted a new motto -"Knysna is a town that works for all".

"The emphasis is on the word 'all' – we believe in that very strongly."

argues that the most obvious social impact of luxury residential
developments is that they provide an opportunity for the rich to become
even wealthier, through access to the property market, while the poor
remain excluded and poor.

"The guy who comes to lay the road in
these developments, build the houses, sweep the floors afterwards, has
no social security. "Most of the jobs on these developments are
informal, they don't come with a pension or a medical aid.

"And I
just think, you only need a little bit of vision to appreciate that
this type of development cannot last in a society like ours – it's a
social and economic time-bomb."

But can the government simply deny developers the right to physically isolate their estates, in the name of security?
prescribe so many other things, why can't they say, 'No more big high
Berlin walls around these large elite estates'?" responds Burger.

Yssel, SA National Parks regional manager for the Garden Route, says
there must be a much more balanced consideration of social, economic
and environmental factors in any development.

"Some of the
biggest concerns with all these developments that have been springing
up here on the Garden Route in the last while is that they seem to
cater for the well-heeled on the economic spectrum, and not for those
who need the attention the most.

"If you just look around Knysna,
for example, it's obvious that the needs of the poorer communities are
as great or even greater.

"So we need to address that, rather than to look
at the development of a couple of more exclusive resorts.

believe one should aim for a society where the benefits of the
environment are available to society as a whole, and not just to a
select few, and we're a far way from there yet."

The Southern
Cape Land Committee says advocating a future in which ordinary South
Africans will have a place to live and play in is not being xenophobic.

is absolutely essential! Game farms, golf estates and holiday complexes
will not sustain us forever. While the rich play, the poor will
continue to be landless, hungry and dependent …

"Let us set our sights on a sustainable future where South Africans own and use our own land to feed, shelter and protect us."

  • This article is part of an occasional series by the author, who was
    awarded a Cape Town Press Club grant to investigate developments on the
    southern Cape coast and elsewhere in the Western Cape.

aerial photography was done courtesy of the Bateleurs, a non-profit
organisation of volunteer pilots who fly environmental conservation
missions in Africa.