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Noise pollution

Noise pollution is described as unwanted or offensive sounds that unreasonably intrude into someone’s daily activities. Generally people are tolerant of infrequent noise, but where the volume and frequency exceeds acceptable levels, frustration and anger result.  A home security alarm going off regularly can cause much aggravation – especially in cases where it becomes apparent that there was no emergency (and the alarm was triggered by a technical glitch or a domestic animal) or otherwise where the homeowners are not close byte disarm the installation.  In the below, we look at the provisions that are in place with regard to noise pollution.

The law

The Environment Conservation Act 73 of 1989 and municipal by-laws generally offer protection against intolerable noise pollution and we discuss below the relevant provisions incorporated in the City of Cape Town Noise Control Regulations of 2013 by virtue of the enabling provisions of the Act.

But before we do that, just a note that our courts, too, have laid down principles of acceptable behaviourin such instances.  In Prinsloo v Shaw, a 1938 judgment, the court stated that “…a resident in a town, and more particularly a resident in a residential neighborhood, is entitled to the ordinary comfort and convenience of his home, and if owing to the actions of his neighbor he is subjected to annoyance or inconvenience greater than that to which a normal person must be expected to submit in contact with his fellow-men, then he has a legal remedy.”  And in Laskey and Another v Showzone CC and Others(2006), the Court distinguished two different kinds of noise, namely, disturbing noise and noise nuisance. A disturbing noise is objective and is defined as a scientifically measurable noise level and generally compared to the existing ambient noise level. A noise nuisance is a subjective measure and is defined as any noise that disturbs or impairs or may disturb or impair the convenience or peace of any person.

City of Cape Town’s 2013 Noise Control Regulations:

The Noise Control Regulations deals with different types of noises, being:

  • “ambient noise” means the all-encompassing sound in a given situation at a given time, measured as the reading on an integrated impulse sound level meter for a total period of at least 10 minutes;
  • “disturbing noise” means a noise, excluding the unamplified human voice, which:-

(a) exceeds the rating level by 7 dBA;

(b) exceeds the residual noise level where the residual noise level is higher than the rating level;

(c) exceeds the residual noise level by 3 dBA where the residual noise level is lower than the rating level; or

(d) in the case of a low-frequency noise, exceeds the level specified in Annex B of SANS 10103;”

  • “residual noise” means the all-encompassing sound in a given situation at a given time, measured as the reading on an integrated impulse sound level meter for a total period of at least 10 minutes, excluding noise alleged to be causing a noise nuisance or disturbing noise;”
  • “noise nuisance “means any sound which impairs or may impair the convenience or peace of a reasonable person;”
  • “noise sensitive activity” means any activity that could be negatively impacted by noise, including residential, healthcare, educational or religious activities.”

The by-law goes on to prohibit someone from causing noise nuisance  (regulation 3) or of causing disturbing noise (regulation 2).

With regard to home alarms, it appears that regulation 3 is applicable. It specifically states that it is prohibited, unless in the case of an emergency,  to “emit a sound, or cause a sound to be emitted, by means of a bell, carillon, siren, hooter, static alarm, whistle, loudspeaker or similar device”.

This provision in regulation 3 acknowledges then that home alarms can constitute a nuisance, but are nonetheless allowed in as far as there is an emergency.  That’s the rub though, as it is no simple task to prove that a neighbor’s alarm went off due to a technical issue or a cat jumping through a window, and not as a result of a real burglary attempt.  Even if a complaint is laid in respect of such noise under regulation 2, i.e. in so far as it constitutes a disturbing noise, one will still have to deal with the owner’s argument that alarms have become everyday and accepted installations at homes and if it is triggered as a result of an attempted burglary, it is a necessary harm that all people live with across the country.  However, if it can be shown that the alarm is triggered more frequently than there realistically are burglary attempts and or that the alarm sounds for long periods without being deactivated by the owner or a security company, then the owner may have a case to meet.


Regulation 13 states that it is an offence to contravene regulations 2 and 3, amongst others, or to fail to comply with a written instruction issued by the local authority with regard to compliance with the regulations.   If convicted, a person is liable for a fine or imprisonment not exceeding two years.

Legal remedies

In order to show that a noise nuisance exists, a reasonable person must find a certain noise intolerable or seriously affecting his enjoyment of his property. A person who is too sensitive or easily irritable must accordingly think twice when considering taking action against his neighbor, as the action may not be successful if the reasonable person would not have been affected by the noise.

As harassed owner, you can lay a complaint with the Noise Control Unit of the City of Cape Town Municipality. They will in turn investigate the problem to see how serious the situation is. If necessary, they can instruct the reduction of the noise and if the offenders do not comply, can issue a fine, and in extreme cases even confiscate the equipment.

If no success is had with the above, a property owner can approach a court for relief, either by way of an interdict to prevent the neighbor from causing the specific noise, or to sue the neighbor for damages suffered as a result of excessive noise caused by him, for example where the noise has negatively affected your quality of life, your health, your comfort, and/or your general well-being.

No matter what the type of nuisance, for it to be subject to interference and relief by courts or a local authority, it must be substantial and continuous, and one must bear in mind that your claim for your neighbor to lower his noise levels, is subject to the principle that your neighbor enjoys the same rights as you do in respect of the use and enjoyment of his own property.

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