South Africa’s Second Army

South Africa’s Second Army

Our Cover Story on the rise of private security firms in Africa (African Business, November 2012) appears to have set the cat among the pigeons. The government wants greater control of the industry while the firms themselves claim they are simply meeting a growing demand. Tom Nevin reports on the stand-off.

The number of private lawmen and women in South Africa greatly outnumbers the servicemen enrolled on the South African Police Services (SAPS). Next to the agricultural industry, the private security sector is the biggest employer in the land. That mind-blowing number, over 2m, worries the government and is the reason the Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa, is hoping to amend the Private Security Industry Regulation Act and bring more of this army of private security personnel under his control. In particular, he wants to restrict the number employed by such foreign-owned companies as G4S, ADT and Chubb, and force a change of ownership that is majority South African.

Two million private security personnel is also a number that speaks volumes for the public’s lack of confidence in the government’s men and women in blue, and a grim reminder that South Africa is amongst the world’s most lawless nations.

“There is a security situation in this country, brought about by rampant lawlessness and the private security companies have grown, both in number and in size, in response to it,” says Jenny Reid, president of the South African Security Association (SASA). “Because the government has not convinced South Africans it is able to contain the threat, the private sector has filled the vacuum and provided a service that is absolutely necessary.”

The proposed law, still at the bill stage and yet to have its first reading in Parliament, mirrors the government’s concerns at the number of foreign security companies that have set up shop in South Africa and employ more than half of the country’s private lawmen. “Having an armed foreign force on our soil is causing serious jitters in Union Buildings (the government’s headquarters in Pretoria),” says Reid.

To African Business’s question about whether the issue could be resolved, either through new legislation or closer liaison between the police and the private security companies, Reid responds that the situation will only improve when the police service and the security companies can sit down and map out a way forward.

“We worked together extremely well during the two weeks of the World Cup,” says Reid. “There’s absolutely no reason we can’t do so again on a more permanent basis. The fear should not be about the professionally run foreign companies but rather the many fly-by-night security organisations in South Africa that are often used by government departments. If the authorities worked more closely with the private security industry there could be a far greater level of control of the illegal local companies operating in South Africa.”

According to the 2011 annual report of the government agency Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSIRA), the number of registered private security personal in South Africa stood at 1,780,874. They are employed by some 8,500 security companies turning over an estimated R50bn ($6.4bn) a year.

The employment number does not include many unregistered personnel working for uncertified companies or self-employed individuals who make a living informally in the sector guarding cars and other property, suggesting the real number might be much higher. In mid-October, the South African Police Services (SAPS) released its annual crime statistics report showing a slight decrease in the number of some violent crimes. Critics point out that the statistics are 18 months out of date and do not help the public gauge the real state of the crime nation, so citizens’ rush to surround homes and business with private security results from a mixture of perception and fact.

“I am not convinced that South Africans are comforted by the fact that 300 fewer people were murdered in SAPS’s latest period under review. What hits between the eyes is the stark realisation that some 16,000 of their fellow citizens died violently, mostly at the hands of criminals, and that is no cause for celebration but it is reason to take whatever personal safety measures they can to avoid being counted in the next round of statistics.

“It all comes down to budget constraints and fear,” says Reid. “Many clients see security as a grudge purchase, but they understand the need to be protected, and this is where the problem starts. Residence and business owners are tempted to use the services of cheaper, non-compliant companies.”

The industry’s guarding sector is most susceptible to ‘fly-by-night’ infiltration and the most likely to have the highest number of unregistered companies. In October this year, the PSIRA registration certificates of just under 100 security service providers were withdrawn for non-payment of annual fees.

The South African police force and the private security legions provided formidable protection at the 2010 soccer World Cup, ensuring one of the most peaceful such events ever by working together. Can they do the same on a more permanent basis and stem South Africa’s wave of crime?

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Written by African Business Magazine

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