/ 18 May 2023

G4S has a problematic history across Africa

Thabo Bester2
The escape of a convicted criminal of Bester's profile should serve as a wake-up call, urging us to address systemic weaknesses and demand accountability from those responsible for maintaining the safety and well-being of our communities. (Frikkie Kapp/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

In May 2022, Thabo Bester, a convicted rapist and murderer, escaped from a privately run prison in Bloemfontein by setting a corpse alight and faking his death. 

The audacious jailbreak was exposed nearly a year later and became a Netflix-level drama that dominated headlines for weeks. Social media was abuzz, while news networks competed for the next scoop about Bester and his lover and alleged accomplice, Dr Nandipha Magudumana. 

The Bonnie-and-Clyde saga drew attention away from G4S, the multinational for-profit company running the Mangaung Correctional Centre, from which Bester escaped.

G4S is the world’s biggest private security company. In 2021, Allied Universal, a privately funded US security contractor, bought the British G4S. That merger created an even larger security giant. Allied employs 800 000 people worldwide, with an annual revenue of about $20 billion.

G4S has a long history in South Africa — its first prison here opened in 2001, and the company signed a 25-year contract worth $814 million. In May, the government said it would terminate the contract to operate the prison from which Bester escaped.

It is not the first time the Mangaung prison has failed to live up to expectations.

In 2012, the Wits Justice Project investigated prisoners’ claims that they were being electroshocked and beaten up, some murdered and others forcibly injected with anti-psychotic drugs.

In October 2013, Sbu Ndebele, who was minister of correctional services, ordered the department of correctional services to take control of the prison, establishing a task team that was supposed to investigate the human rights violations.

But the evidence the investigation team collected went missing and the department refused to release the final report. It returned control of the prison to G4S in August 2014 without explanation.

The government has taken a first step in holding the company accountable by terminating the Mangaung prison contract. G4S must vacate it within 90 days. This does not mean that the global private security giant will leave the country. About 15 000 people work for G4S in South Africa, providing security not just at Mangaung prison but also at mines, airports and banks.

G4S is the world’s biggest private security company. (Jason Alden/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Who protects the guards?

G4S claims it is Africa’s biggest private employer. The company is active in 26 African countries and employs more than 120 000 people.

Strikes and discontent among the G4S workforce on the continent are common.

Before the government initially took control of the Mangaung prison in 2013, employees demonstrated outside the building, carrying banners with the text: “We are not slaves. Stop treating us like rubbish. Please save us from this private monster.” They complained about salaries and a lack of safety measures.

In 2018, South African G4S workers filed a complaint alleging they had not received a cent of the dividends they were supposed to earn through a 13% stake in the company. In 2021, a black empowerment commission decided G4S should pay just over $1 million to the workers. That money was transferred to a trust but the beneficiaries were never paid.

In 2007, the NGO, War on Want, published a report titled Who Protects the Guards, detailing how G4S treated its employees in Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa. Black South African workers were often called derogatory names and the company allowed ‘“whites only” toilets. In Malawi, G4S workers were paid poverty wages. In Mozambique, guards said they were not given a single day of paid leave.

Mangaung correctional centre
Mangaung correctional centre

G4S in the rest of Africa

There is little evidence that the company has cleaned up its act in recent years.

In Kenya, G4S has been plagued by strikes, with workers saying their salaries had been illegally cut. In Nigeria, G4S is mainly present in the oil-rich Niger Delta, where multinational oil companies have fuelled strife, conflict and civil unrest for years. There, it provides security for oil companies and has fostered “a culture of maximising profit at the expense of workers’ internationally recognised labour rights”, journalist Ibiba Don Pedro reports.

G4S workers, who were hired to provide security for Chevron, testified to a “divide and rule culture” that saw some workers earn more than others without a valid reason. Salaries were also illegally slashed and employees who unionised were treated with hostility. 

Workers have been battling in court since 2011 over an unpaid leaving gratuity. This consists of two months’ full salary, and was negotiated in 2009, but the company refused to pay. The union representing workers estimated the fee owed by G4S was about $6 million.

In Malawi, not much has changed since War on Want established that G4S workers were paid poverty wages. Journalist Gregory Gondwe reported that injured workers were not compensated and some were even dismissed. 

A man who worked for G4S for 17 years claimed he earned the equivalent of $40 a month, which is below the minimum wage in Malawi. Workers also claim regulations concerning overtime, days off and pension are regularly violated.

A G4S spokesperson said that the Mangaung Correctional Centre has had a strong track record over the past 22 years, adding that G4S is committed to investment in South Africa “but it remains G4S’s firm intention to discontinue all investment in correctional services in South Africa”.

Speaking of protests in Kenya and Malawi, the company said: “We actively encourage our employees to be members of a trade union and fully support them in their membership.” 

They dismissed the complaints of workers in Nigeria, saying they had been paid in full. 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.