The worldwide spread of gated residential developments (GRDs) reached Southern Africa in the late 1980s, at a time of dramatic political and urban change. Their success has been primarily interpreted as an outcome of the transformations affecting cities, i.e. perceived decreased security and changing racial patterns. Such analyses are embedded in the fragmentation of urban societies and shed light on community or household strategies. Breaking away from this perspective, we argue that, although GRDs fit very well into unequal postcolonial, postwar or post‐apartheid societies, they should also be envisioned as polymorphic real estate products tailored to care for the middle classes of the corresponding urban contexts. By focusing on the role of developers, estate agents and international aid networks in spreading this model in Cape Town, Maputo and Windhoek, we highlight the importance of market‐related and political processes, as well as the influence of the local urban, political and town planning contexts on the adaptation of this private suburban housing product. The circulation of this model is geographically analysed in terms of scales and local contexts through a comparative approach that allows us to assess how it adapts to or disrupts inherited urban patterns and planning traditions.