Private security: A disturbing peace of mind

“I only wear my bulletproof vest at night,” says Julius as he parks his Mazda in front of a small supermarket in Sophiatown, Johannesburg.

“Night shifts are the best; they are the most exciting. I often drive without lights and always with my gun between my legs.
You cannot grab it quickly with the vest on.”

Julius is a 33-year-old security guard who has been patrolling the same streets since he was 21. He mostly just drives, passing the same houses and shops.

“It almost never happens that you respond to an alarm and you actually find a burglar on the premises,” he says. 

He is one of many. An estimated 130 981 security guards make a living patrolling the streets of Gauteng. They make South Africans feel safe.

Julius drives me through Sophiatown, stopping at houses to deliver slips. Some clients have requested that a note be delivered every day, just to be sure that Julius was there.

Just before he is about to drop a slip in one of the mailboxes, Julius grabs his two-way radio. He runs back to the car, slams the door and hits the gas.

“I just got a panic call,” he says.

Two minutes later, we stop at a house surrounded by a concrete wall topped with metal spikes.

“Stay in the car, you cannot come with me,” he says, but before he can even get out of the car, a domestic worker appears at the gate.

She is eating a bowl of cornflakes and two dogs are playing at her feet. An alarm remote control hangs from her belt. They exchange a few words in Sesotho and Julius drives off again.

“She pushed it by mistake. That happens a lot,” he says. 

The silent revolution

Gauteng seems to be crawling with security guards. They are everywhere—ferrying money to businesses in military-style vehicles, guarding gated communities or sitting on three-legged chairs watching over suburban streets.

“The business of private security is growing and has gone through a silent revolution. All over the world, the industry has boomed and it has taken over functions that were previously performed by the police,” says the chain-smoking Jenny Irish-Qhobosheane, a private security researcher.

Irish-Qhobosheane was until February 14 a member of the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority, which is appointed by the Department of Safety and Security.

The term of the previous committee ended in February. A new committee has been nominated and approved by the Cabinet, but the Department of Safety and Security said it is not able to disclose yet whether Irish-Qhobosheane has been nominated. 

According to her research, private security officers outnumber police officers four to one.

“We call it a silent revolution because it has happened without any real development of policy. There has not been any debate on what role private security should play in society.

“Thus far, we have talked about how the sector should be regulated, but we have not been making policy or defining the role of the industry. Where does public policing end and private security start? The separation between these roles has become very blurred,” says Irish-Qhobosheane.

Security in Gauteng is big business.

HIG Security has three outlets: in Boksburg, Northcliff and Bardene, and offers thousands of security-related products.

The tiny shop in Beyers Naude Drive, Northcliff, is crammed with remote controls for automated gates and alarm systems. There are bottles of Mace, miniature cameras, plug-and-play surveillance cameras, high-powered lights and devices that will send you an SMS when your alarm is triggered. There is even a fake surveillance camera with a flashing red light.

Customers can pre-order a brick wall to accompany their new spiked gates. It seems the only thing the shop doesn’t sell is fierce dogs.

“South Africa suffers from a kind of siege mentality, where people barricade themselves in their houses. Some of these measures seem a bit drastic, but the fear of crime is not hype,” says “crime psychologist” Mike Earl-Taylor, a researcher at Rhodes University in Grahamstown.

“It is a real fear of existing property crime, which is rooted in economic differences. One can understand the mentality behind the protective measures that rich people take, but it does not solve the problem.

“This [protection] can lead to a breakdown in social bonding. It increases depersonalisation and the anonymity of the individual. The sense of responsibility towards other people and the community diminishes, which in turn leads to a breakdown in social control.

“The fact that we feel the need to hire armed response and move into gated communities and boomed areas is a manifestation of loss of faith in the police. People do not trust the police to effectively protect their area; they buy themselves some safety,” says Earl-Taylor.

Gated communities

There is one housing complex on Julius’s route: three blocks of flats, three storeys each, surrounded by an electrified palisade fence.

“I come here three times on a shift. There used to be a lot of break-ins here and I always suspected that it was someone who lived here,” he says.

In terms of security, the flats have nothing compared with the townhouse complexes that are springing up in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg.

There, residents seem to believe there is safety in numbers. Complexes are guarded full-time and many have guards posted at the front gates.

Lindsay Bremner, a former chair of architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand, believes there is more to the townhouse phenomenon than fear of crime, and says “one needs to needs to examine the agents whose livelihoods now depend on the perpetuation of this form of development, and they are many, from security companies to property developers of gated communities”.

“They key into people’s fears and insecurities about living in a changing world,” says Bremner.

“It is more than fear. Fear has been colonised by the real-estate and insurance industries, so that inside such developments, property values are higher and insurance premiums are lower.

“This is not peculiar to South Africa, but [is] the pattern around the world. Informal settlements and gated communities are the fastest-growing forms of urban development across the world today,” she says.

Police just ‘drive around’

Back on the beat with Julius, we are cruising through the streets of Newlands in Sophiatown, a rundown area where drugs and prostitution are rife.

“When I meet the police here, they just drive around and seem to do nothing. Sometimes you see them talking to the dealers. There is a lot of corruption among the cops.

“On the rare occasion we actually catch a burglar, we often have to wait for hours before the police arrive,” says Julius.

Even though he is not very positive about the police, there is healthy cooperation between the South African Police Service (SAPS) and most private security companies.

“We have an excellent relationship with our local police station,” says Dennis O’Neale, the owner of Meldene Security, which employs Julius. “They are always willing to assist us, but the problem is they are not always able.”

“The police do their best and they were very successful in their transformation, but it remains a fact that there is not enough police around. They are under-resourced and understaffed,” comments Rhodes researcher Earl-Taylor. “The SAPS needs more money.”

When approached for comment, the SAPS denied it is short of personnel.

“Occasionally there will be cases of unforeseen absenteeism, such as illness, but the police have to manage the personnel absenteeism in such a way that there will always be adequate personnel to render policing service,” senior Superintendent Mohlabi Thlomatsana told the Mail & Guardian Online.

“In the short term, we all make use of private security because it is there and it offers us a service we cannot get from the police. Policymakers should wonder what the long-term application of this is,” comments Irish-Qhobosheane.

‘Let us pray’

Julius is one of the less obvious security guards. He is dressed in black jeans and only his black casual shirt carries the name of the company. Others, such as the men and women who are employed at Stallion Security, wear military-style uniforms.

It’s roll call at Stallion headquarters in Doornfontein. More than 100 guards line up in the parking lot at the beginning of their shift. They march like soldiers in three lines and salute their manager, who then leads them in the Lord’s Prayer. The guards are then transported in trucks to the companies they are to guard.

Now it is the turn of the armed-response officers. They turn to face the wall, arm their weapons and then they pray.

Every security guard has to be trained at a facility that has been accredited by the Department of Labour. There are five grades of guard, from A to E.

E-grade guards will typically search people and luggage. Armed-response officers need to have reached at least grade C, and need a firearm license. A-grade guards are involved in training and management.

A guard just starting out in Gauteng can expect to R1 400 a month, while an A-grade guard can earn R2 600.

“The guards dressed in combat uniforms will be guarding the more industrial clients; the others that wear corporate uniforms will be sent to companies,” says Patrick Bhebhe, the area manager at Stallion Security.

The combat uniforms are calculated to impress, to scare. The guards wear red berets and black jeans tugged into high-cut black boots. They are all armed with batons.

The company is run like an army.

“Our uniforms have different features. If you are a D-grade security guard, you have a V-shaped broach on your collar; if you are an A-grade guard, you will have two stars. It works a bit like the army,” says Bhebhe.

“The fact that we maintain a military style has something to do with the history of the company,” he says. “The CEO has a military background and he has introduced this style.”

“The question remains whether these security guards are equipped and able to handle a problematic situation,” says Irish-Qhobosheane.

“There are smaller groups within the armed-response sector that have their response officers running around like mini-Rambos guarding people’s homes,” she says. “The bigger companies in the sector have a more corporate image and seem to understand their responsibility very well.”

This is part one of this feature. hereRead the second installment

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