Strategic Planning of Boundary Walls and Fences

steel fence

A steel palisade fence on the street side boundary.

Boundary walls and fences are one of the most controversial topics facing homeowners. We are constantly contacted by people from all parts of South Africa who want advice – or have some sort of problem – relating to boundary walls and fences – often because neighbours have erected something that is offensive or clearly illegal.

There are laws that relate to boundary walls and fences, but more importantly, you need to check the boundary walls and fences policy followed by your local authority. Ultimately what you can and cannot do is up to them.

Boundary Walls and Fences and the Law

The two most important issues here are the position of boundary walls and fences, and ownership.

Positioning Boundary Walls and Fences

All properties are surveyed and pegged when land is zoned for residential use. But as soon as the land is built on, generally the pegs are removed. This is why it is so important to ensure that boundary walls and fences are correctly positioned in the first place. If there is a dispute between neighbours at any stage (and they could be completely different parties to those who owned the two properties when the wall was built), it may be necessary to get a land surveyor to resurvey the property according to the official diagram that is lodged with the Surveyor General in Pretoria.

If you decide to build a wall or erect a fence on the boundary, you may do so provided it is on your property. And this includes the foundationswhich of course will be wider and longer than the wall itself. The structure will then belong to you. [See minor building work for walls and fences that do not require plans.]

The law also protects the structure from any action that may threaten its stability. For instance your neighbour may not dig down next to your wall on his/her side if this is likely to wash away the earth if and when there are heavy rains. If he/she does some sort of excavation, they will need to erect a retaining wall (which will require plans) or some other structure that provides lateral support to the wall.

Ownership of Boundary Walls and Fences

Often, however, neighbours agree to share the costs of boundary walls and fences, in which case ownership is also shared.

In the absence of proof that a boundary wall is wholly on one or other property, ownership is usually presumed to be shared. Some local authorities state that each side is then owned by the property owner on each side; others say that the wall is owned jointly. If ownership is shared either way, neither owner may do anything to the wall – ie they may not raise it, lower it or break it down – without the other neighbour’s permission. If the structure is damaged in any way, both must share the cost of repair.

There are different laws that apply in agricultural areas (farmland).

Local Authority Boundary Walls and Fences Policies

While every local authority has its own policy for boundary walls and fences, there are many similarities. The information give here is based on the official policy of the City of Cape Town, drawn from a document that was published in 2009.

The official document Boundary Walls and Fences Policy acknowledges the fact that all fences and boundary walls that front onto public streets are “highly visible” and therefore have a direct bearing on the character as well as what they term the “visual amenity of neighbourhoods”.

Driven by an increased need for security, more and more homeowners are tending to install security devices on top of boundary walls and fences in an uncontrolled and haphazard manner. These devices take various forms and include different types of electric fencing, as well as razor wire, barbed wire and various kinds of ugly (though effective) spikes. Because of this, the City of Cape Town devised its policy in 2009, formally identifying which security devices may be utilized – and which should not be permitted.

At this stage, the City of Cape Town’s Building By-laws prohibited the use of certain materials including galvanized iron sheeting and asbestos sheeting (though it should also be noted that no asbestos materials may be used for building anywhere in the country), and barbed wire on street boundaries, but they did not make any provision for controlling security devices. While historically, the Occupational Health and Safety Act controlled the technical aspects of the installation of electric fences, there was no provision in the City’s Scheme Regulations to control the installation of security devices.

Their Boundary Walls and Fences Policy attempts to control the appearance of boundary walls and fences and the installation of security devices on top of walls and fences. They also point out that this policy precedes the formulation of a by-law.

The City of Cape Town’s Legal Mandate

As they state, boundary walls are considered to form part of municipal planning, which is a local authority competency in terms of Part B of Schedule 5 of South Africa’s Constitution. Note that this is why the decisions relating to boundary walls and fences are ultimately left to the local authority to decide.

In Terms of Section 156 of the Constitution, municipalities (or local authorities, including the various Cities – specifically Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban etc.) have the power to make and administer by-laws that will ensure the effective administration of all the various matters they have the right to administer – in this case, policies that relate to boundary walls and fences.

There is no provision made in the National Building Regulations to control the appearance and height of boundary walls. For this reason, control of the appearance and height of boundary walls has become part of municipal planning country-wide.

Rationale and Justification for By-laws Relating to Boundary Walls and Fences

Complaints Relating to Safety

In the absence of a standard policy throughout the city, or relevant by-laws dealing with these matters, The City Council stated that it was receiving complaints from members of the community concerning safety issues surrounding the installation of electric fences in particular. Specifically, concerns related to the safety of children and accidental contact with the live wires.

Complaints had also been received about the use of unsightly materials and the adverse impact that this has on the character and visual amenity of certain areas.

The document noted that the high crime rate was a concern to the community and that the protection of life and property had become a priority in most, if not all neighbourhoods of the City.

Boundary Walls and Fences Explained

A Definition of Boundary Walls and Fences

For the purposes of managing and assessing proposals in terms of their “new” policy, the City defined a boundary wall or fence as “any wall, fence or enclosing structure erected on or next to a property boundary and any other structures (including but not limited to security devices, for example spikes, electric fencing, barbed or razor wire) affixed to or on top of it.”

Specifications for Boundary Walls and Fences

There is now a list of specifications for boundary fences and walls that are:

  • located on street boundaries,
  • located on boundaries of public open space,
  • and lateral boundaries.

These must comply with the following requirements:

  • Solid boundary walls may not be any higher than shall 1.8 m on street boundaries, and no higher than 2,1 m on lateral boundaries.
  • Palisade-type fences may not be higher than 2.1 m on either street or lateral boundaries.
  • Fences may not be higher than 2,1 m on street boundaries.

[Note:  The National Building Regulations state that walls and fences to a maximum height of 1,8 m are regarded as “minor building work” and do not require plans. So whilst the City of Cape Town allows walls and fences to be a maximum of 2,1 m, unless they rule otherwise, plans will be required.]

  • The District Manager has the right to relax these height requirements at his/her discretion.
  • At least 40% of the surface area of any street boundary walls, including gates, if these are provided, must be visually permeable – ie you need to be able to see through close to half of the wall and gate.
  • Boundary walls and fences must be measured from the existing level of the ground that abuts the wall or fence. If the level of the ground on opposite sides of the fence or wall are not equal, the height should be measured from the higher of the two sides. If soil is retained by a boundary wall, the maximum permitted height of the retained soil is 2,1 m. This should be measured from the natural ground level in front of the wall. A balustrade wall not exceeding 1 m in height is permitted above the level of the retained soil.

[Note: Plans are required for retaining walls.]

  • Where two intersecting street boundaries of any property enclose an angle of less than 135 degrees, the maximum permitted boundary wall height above street level within 4, 5 m of the intersection of the boundaries is 1 m.
  • Electrified fencing and other forms of security fencing must also comply with these requirements.

Important Provisions of the NBR
and Building Standards Act

The provisions of Section 4 of the National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act, No 103 of 1977 (ie the legislation), are applicable which means that prior written authority must be obtained from the City when erecting a boundary wall or fence. More specifically, Section 4 of the Act relates to: “Approval by local authorities of applications in respect of erection of buildings”, and states that people must:

  1. get written approval from the local authority after plans and specifications have been submitted to the local authority
  2. submit all applications in writing on the form supplied by the local authority
  3. supply the name and address of the person applying for permission to build together with the necessary plans, specifications etc. required by the National Building Regulations and Building Standards
  4. be aware that anyone who contravenes the Act will be guilty of an offense and liable (if convicted) to pay a maximum fine of R100 per day for every day spent erecting and building illegally.

The Building Control Officer has indicated that the provisions of Section 13 of Act 103 dealing with work of a minor nature are also applicable.

Note that this is not a reference to the section in the Act that refers to minor building work. 

Section 13 of the Act relates to “Exemption of buildings from national building regulations and authorization for erection”, and it states that any building control officer may exempt property owners from the need to submit plans or authorize erection of a building in accordance with specific conditions and directions.

Note that the City of Cape Town has seen fit to draw attention to this section in terms of walls and fences (not only buildings as such).

Sources

Boundary Walls and Fences Policy. City of Cape Town, Directorate: Strategy & Planning; Department of Planning & Building Development Management; Development Policy & Processes Branch. January 2009.

Reader’s Digest Family Guide to The Law in South Africa. The Reader’s Digest Association South Africa (Pty) Ltd. Cape Town. 1986.

  447 Responses to “Boundary Walls and Fences”

Comments (447)
  1. Bear with me please.
    I sold a piece of my property sometime ago. The owners of this property have started building on this plot.
    Being ignorant of the rules governing building etc (which I am) a friend of mine visited and made the comment that this building that is being put up has infringed on my property but virtue of the space between their building and my house.
    My question is- where do I go and who do I speak to, to find out what I should do.
    This is in the Umhlanga Rocks municipaly.

    • Umhlanga falls under the Ethekwini Municipality (City of Durban). Their regional office is ​327 Umhlanga Rocks Drive, Umhlanga Rocks TEL: 031-3116074/76
      Essentially the must have approved plans to build – so check this – and the distance between their new building and your boundary will be shown on these plans. You could ask them to send a building inspector to check that they are building according to the approved plans.

  2. Good Day Penny,
    We need some advice. About 2 months ago the boundary wall between our neighbor and us fell over due to a tree’s root in his yard that slowly pushed our wall over. He wanted no responsibility what so ever and during the time we argued about who is responsible, he said to us that if our dogs enter his yard he will shoot them. Since then we are not on speaking terms with him and eventually we paid for the wall to be re-build. About a week ago he started building his own boundary wall in his yard but this wall is about a meter taller than ours and he refuses to plaster the wall on our side. He said that he can build on his property what he wants. I think he purposely did this and the workmanship of the guys building the wall is sooooo un neat and it is really a eye sore. On top of that, they have messed so much cement on our paving while they were building the wall and refuses to clean it. There must be something we can do. Please can you give us some good news. Thank you very much.

    • H Danielle,
      We are sorry to hear that you have such an unpleasant dispute with your neighbour. Normally if the wall is directly on the boundary and there is no written agreement to say otherwise then the wall is a joint responsiblity and costs must be shared. You have taken responsibility for the wall by having it repaired at your expense. As he has built his own separate wall next to the old wall, chances are it is on his property and not on the boundary, in which case it is his responsibility and there’s nothing to force him to plaster your side. However, if he has damaged your paving you can claim damages – but that will mean going to an attorney. You do not say where in SA you are situated. The general by-law for most municipalities is the street facing wall can be 1.8m, and the lateral (neighbours) boundary walls can be 2.1m without plans. Any higher than this then plan approval is needed and the consent of your neighbour is also required. If your neighbour has built higher than this you should call the building inspector in your area and report what he has done. All municipal numbers are here: municipality-contact

  3. I live in region B Johannesburg next to a single building corner house. The owners have build their extention of their house right up to our wall boundary that is to separate the two properties. Normally a metre is allowed, but am told because its a corner house it has the right to build the primary house right up to the wall separating the properties. There are no spaces from their side only the metre from our house wall to the boundary wall. They have gone further and installed brick air vents for their rooms showing on our side, again I stress this is the portion that forms the wall separating properties.
    There is further leakage which now seems to becoming from their side and JHB water told them to fix but the person fixing the plumbing as clean water with sludge was flowing from their back yard property to our back yard running right to the next and next neighbour .
    Your advise and aissistance would be appreciated

    • Tyrone, you asked virtually the same question on our sister site, Owner Building, and I have answered you there. Here’s a link. Frankly the story you have been given about it being a corner house is nonsense! In addition to this, they have an obligation to get rid of both stormwater and waste in the correct manner. If it is sludge – which I read as toilet waste – contact your local Health Inspector at the municipality. And since they have been told by J’burg Water to fix the problem, contact them and let them know that they have not complied.

  4. Good day

    I want to put up either vibracrete or a brick wall in front of my
    house and would like to know who to contact to get the relevant
    authorisation

    Regards,
    Keenan

    • Keenan your local authority – municipality or council – are the people to contact. There is information on this page that will help you. Here’s another link with information. If the wall is going to be 1,8 m high or less, then it is regarded as minor building work and you don’t need plans, but you do have to notify your local authority that you plan to build.

  5. Hello I need some advice on how high can I build a boundry wall,using
    standard m200 blocks in the durban area,I have tryd calling our city
    engineers/etekwini municipality,however they just put me on hold until
    it cuts off,its just the height I’m tryn find out,the legal height
    without a plan,I have spoken to 3 building contractors,2 of them told
    me 2.1m height,n the 1 guy said 1.8m height so I nw dnt know who to
    believe.please help.

    • Sirish, The National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act states that “any freestanding wall built with masonry, concrete, steel, aluminum, or timber or any wire fence that does not exceed 1,8 m in height at any point above ground level and does not retain soil,” is minor building work and does not require plans. If you look at the link that I have given you you will see that you still do need to notify them (they probably have a standard form you can fill in and submit) that you will be building the wall.
      If you want to build a wall that is higher than 1,8 m, you should submit plans to the local authority for approval – and these must be drawn up by a competent person. Having said this, the local authority does have the power to allow you to build a higher wall without plans, but you would need to get such approval in writing. Unfortunately you are going to have to persist in contacting them – if need be visit their offices.
      Here’s another article on minor building work on this web site.

  6. Yes I agree. Will keep you posted

  7. as stated in the article that “City Council stated that it was receiving complaints from members of the community concerning safety issues surrounding the installation of electric fences in particular. Specifically, concerns related to the safety of children and accidental contact with the live wires accordin”

    The City is concerned about the danger of Razor Wires and Electrical Fences at residential areas. According to the City of Cape Town’s Boundary walls and Fencing Policy, razor and electric fences are not allowed in residential areas due to Health and safety Issues. But although the City do have a policy around this issue, it cannot be enforced, and I do not know for what good reasoning.

    is there any way that this policy can be enforced, or which other legislations that can be used to ensure enforcement and compliance.

    Thanks

    • Peter this is an issue you should address to the City of Cape Town. They have a really good website and will probably respond to your query. We have absolutely no idea why they cannot enforce their policies – or even if their policies can’t be enforced.
      I am not aware of other legislation covering this specific issue. It certainly seems it is the bylaws that govern the issue in Cape Town.

  8. Good day-could you kindly explain to me what rights we have with regards the control of dust and noise from the neighbour building. We have a guest house and is unable to do business for the past 4 years due to the building which still has not been completed. At times they stop all activities for 3-4 months before they resume building. Do we have any rights in this matter

    • Martin, I can only tell you what the building regulations say – you may well have other rights, but you would need to get legal advice on this.
      Noise and dust control is covered in Part F (Site Operations) of SANS 10400. If you have a look at the link I have given you – scroll down to “Control of Unreasonable Levels of Dust and Noise” – you will see that anyone who is involved in demolition, excavation and building work has to take care not to “unreasonably disturb or interfere with the amenity of the neighborhood”. Specifically there are times that they may not use any machine, machinery, engine, apparatus, tool or contrivance that is noisy or makes a lot of dust. But that’s really all it says.
      The fact that this has been going on for so long, plus the stop-start nature of the job, and ultimately the fact that it is effecting your income, are issues that a lawyer will have to assess and advise on.

  9. We live on a small property bordering a large public Gardens. The wire fence has been in place for at least the 40 years we have lived here, and we’ve covered it with plants to give us some privacy. The fence is very close to our house, and the ground slopes down from it on the other side. The Gardens Management now plan to replace this with a palisade fence along their entire boundary. We have no problem with this in principle, but are concerned about them taking down the existing fence to do so, along with all our plants. Also the security issues of the fence being taken down and our property being totally unsecured before the new one is installed. We are suggesting that the new fence be positioned just on their side of the existing fence, and leaving this one as is. We have been advised that as this fence has been in existence for more than 30 years, they are not able simply to remove it, even if it is exactly on the boundary. Positioning the new fence a few centimetres in from the boundary line will have no impact whatsoever on their large property, whereas what they are planning to do will impact heavily on us.

    • Mike have you discussed this with the “Gardens Management” (would this be the municipality Parks & Gardens?). A lawyer would be able to advise on whether they can remove the fence legally, without your approval. I think your proposal is very fair, and certainly not unreasonable. If they are unreasonable you’re going to have to get legal advice.

  10. I am currently residing in a double storey house.My current neighbours
    have got a flat dwelling(not a double storey).They want to make
    alterations to there house which will be a doublke storey house.This
    alterations will infringe on my privacy as there rooms will look
    directly into my dwelling and pool area.Is there any law that gives me
    the right to challenge these people from continueing with thiere
    alterations.

    Thank you

    • Wendell, although there are height restrictions for building, generally double-storey structures are allowed. There are also restrictions in terms of windows etc facing a boundary wall IF the building is on or very close to the boundary. You will have to check with your local authority, because these are found in by-laws rather than national legislation/regulations.
      Your best option may be to talk nicely to your neighbour and see if the two of you can come up with a plan that screens their view – and maintains your privacy.

  11. Dear sir/m’am,

    My neighbour is insisting on removing a lateral boundary pre-cast wall
    so he can construct a garage on the boundary. He says he has approved
    plans and is fully entitled to do it. CAn he not build the garagenext
    to the pre-cast wall without removing it? He also claims the boundary
    wall is in his property according to survey measurements.

    Kind regards
    Mike
    Johannesburg

    • Mike, If it’s his wall, he can pretty well do what he likes with it, but I am pretty sure that the City of Johannesburg requires neighbour’s consent in writing for anything to built on the boundary line. (This is no longer the case in Cape Town – the zoning by laws changed a couple of months ago.) You have every right to ask to see the approved plans, and if he refuses, call the City’s planning department and ask them what is going on. You can also ask for proof that the wall is on his side of the boundary. The other issue is whether he owns the wall or whether it is owned jointly. If it’s on his side it is likely that he or a previous owner of that property erected it. The position of boundary pegs should be on your site plan. Otherwise you can get this information from the Surveyor General’s office in Pretoria. Of course he could build the garage next to the precast wall, but remember that the foundations are wider than the wall itself, so there would have to be a slight gap between the precast and new garage wall. That isn’t a good idea as rats and all kinds of other creatures might start breeding here! There is another issue, and that is if he removes the wall, this will affect you in several ways until the new structure is built. e.g. It could be a safety or security threat if you don’t have the wall. I’m guessing here; but it might give you additional ammunition.

  12. We have been living in Kuilsriver for 22years. Now the vacant plot next to us is being built on. Double story. We gave permission for them to build the garage over boundary. They building double story but have now thrown foundation on top of garage and have built a balcony on top of garage without plans for this. Now my problem is this balcony is only hip height and faces my backyard. We gave a pool so now this means that we have no privacy whatsoever in our backyard anymore! Is this right… Can we object? Because inspector is telling my husband that regulations have changed and they can do this. What happened to our rights and what will happen to our property value… No one will want to buy our house if we ever wanted to sell!!!

    • When you say you gave permission for the garage to be built “over boundary”, do you mean up to the boundary?
      Generally the local authorities will allow this, but they won’t allow additional building on the boundary line. And a double storey structure is not simply a garage. Yes you absolutely can object. But do so in writing and hand deliver the letter and make sure somebody signs for it at the local authority.
      As far as the building inspector maintaining that the regulations have changed – you need to demand an explanation in writing in terms of what he says has changed. Certainly there is no change that allows people to blatantly build something that is not on the approved plans. You must be sure to object to the building inspector’s superiors – i.e. his boss or the head of the planning department – because there may be corruption/bribery here.

      • We only have permission for the garage to be built against our garage. This was suppose to have a roof on they have now thrown foundwation on top of garage and changed the top of whoa bbalcony that is hip height. We have been in contact with the inspectors superior who was going to send them a letter asking where plans are for changes but now today the inspector for the property phoned my husband saying the regulations changed and thattthey allowed to do this without our permission because regulations changed 1 March or April.

        • Can send you a photo of you give me email so you can see what I mean.

        • Pauleen the National Building Regulations have NOT changed this year. If this is a change in the City’s regulations I would be very surprised. I have sent you a direct link to my personal email. Send me details and I will contact them tomorrow. I also need the name of the man’s superior.

        • Pauleen – while the Cape Town zoning regulations did change in March this year, one of our other readers has brought up an interesting point. Part T, Fire protection does NOT permit building on a boundary of any sort. You find a table HERE that specifies “safety distances” between walls and boundaries. The closest you can build to any boundary is 0,5 m – and then only where the area of elevation facing any boundary is not more than 7,5 sq m. The info you want is in the first and second columns of this table.
          I am wondering whether you could submit an objection based on this, because at the end of the day the NBR specify minimum requirements – and the local authority may not over-ride them unless the specific regulation states that they can.

  13. My neighbour has agreed that I can build on the boundary.
    The city of tshwane has changed the plan.

    City of Tshwane say’s
    1.Garage can be build on boundary.
    2.Studio on 1st floor should be build 1meter away from the boundary.

    My question is

    1.If the neighbour agreed that we can build on the boundary,does city
    of tshwane have the right to change our agreement?
    2.Is there any bylaw that state that you cannot build a double storey
    on the boundary?

    Regards

    • Percy generally one is not permitted to build on the boundary at all. There are specified building lines for every property that specify just how close to the boundary you may build – click this link to read more about boundary lines. If the municipality/local authority – in your case the City of Tshwane – allows you to build on the boundary, you will also need neighbours’ consent. But a neighbour’s consent alone is not sufficient.

  14. Hi

    There is a precast boudary wall between me and my neighbour but he is dumping all kinds of building and gardening rubble against his side of the wall causing the wall to lean tawards my side causing plenty of damage. I tried to talk to him but he said if i want the walls fixed I must do it myself at my own cost. Please can you assist.

    • Hi Martin,
      The first question is: Who owns the wall? Have a look at this page: “boundary-walls-and-fences” and scroll down to “Ownership of Boundary Walls and Fences” it says: “If ownership is shared either way, neither owner may do anything to the wall – ie they may not raise it, lower it or break it down – without the other neighbour’s permission. If the structure is damaged in any way, both must share the cost of repair.” You can put him to terms in writing and if you do not get and satisfaction then you will have to get a lawyer involved as this is a civil case.

  15. Hi there,
    I want to build a double garage that will form part of the Borderline
    between me and th neighbour. What is needed, do I have to get plans,
    approval from the neighbour etc.
    Regards,
    Johan de Bruyn

   
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