Private security: A disturbing peace of mind (part two)

In the second part of this feature on South Africa’s private security industry, Ellen Hollemans spoke to security guards and experts in the field and analyses the dangers and problems associated with this volatile industry. Read part one.

Third force

“The initial formation of the private security industry was encouraged by the apartheid regime. This was done because the police had to concentrate on political opposition.
Private security had to fill the gap that was left by the public police. And they could be used for third-force activities,” says Irish-Qhobosheane.

The term “third force” is used to describe the influence of elements in society (like private security) to create hatred and violence among other parties in order to destabilise society. It is generally accepted that third-force factors played a mayor role in the violence between supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party and the African National Congress in KwaZulu-Natal in the mid-Nineties.

“Historically, private security companies played a very strong third-force role. I think there is still that potential, but to a lesser extent. There still is a certain third-force threat and the industry still has the potential to become a destabilising factor.

“There could be instances of political parties or foreign people with different agendas that could use private security to access information on people and governments and use this for destabilising activities,” says Irish-Qhobosheane.

‘I am fed up’

For most guards, it is the battle against boredom that is most difficult.

“I am fed up with being a security guard,” says Julius, after we have been driving for three hours. “It does not pay enough, and it is so boring. Last week, I applied for a job as a security guard in Iraq and I really hope they will employ me.

“In the advertisement it said that they were going to pay me $6 000 per month, and you will have to work for three months and than you can go home for one month, in which you will also get paid.”

Julius has already spent the money in his head.

“If I would work there for a year, all my dreams can come true, I can buy a house and a car and retire.”

Considering his salary of R2 500 a month, it is not strange that Julius and his colleagues are looking abroad for better opportunities.

“There has been a huge recruitment of South African security companies and employers into Iraq. Africa and South Africa’s security industry is growing, and many of the big companies have used South Africa as a base from which to expand into the continent,” says Irish-Qhobosheane.

“The companies that have expanded the quickest into Southern Africa are the companies that in the past were accused of blurring the lines between private security and mercenary activities.

“The possible involvement in conflicts gave these companies a start to set up what appears to be legitimate security companies in post-conflict countries.”

Irish-Qhobosheane said she is concerned that the lines between mercenary activity and legitimate security become blurred in a post-conflict country, like Iraq.

“In countries where regulation of the private security industry is in the very initial stages, the potential for security companies to become involved in problematic activities is really serious. An example is Angola, where the lines between the diamond industry and the private security industry become really problematic.”

Relying on private security

South Africans seem to be relying more and more on private security. The army of armed and unarmed security guards is growing and seems to be filling in the gaps left by the overstretched police force.

“I think it is a process that happens over time; you do not wake up and private security has taken over. But it is happening in South Africa and we need to be aware of the potential this has,” says Irish-Qhobosheane.

“By relaying on private security, we create a society where the wealthy have access to security and the poor have not.

“At the end of the day, this leads to a criminal justice system that becomes more and more accountable to the wealthy and those that can afford it,” she says. “This has very serious implications for a country, and in particular for a country that is an emerging democracy.”

But not just the well-heeled are touched by crime.

“All people are the target of crime. If you go into Soweto and Orange Farm, people complain about crime and suffer from it. It is not just the rich; the poverty-stricken communities are suffering from it as well,” says Irish-Qhobosheane.

“Poor people also have the same complaints about the police, and most of the times the people in the townships have a lot more reason to complain, because wealthy people have more power and means to actually get their problems addressed.”

“The aim of private security is to protect their clients and not to prosecute and eliminate the criminals; they just deal with the threat of criminals and not with the prosecution of criminal networks,” she says.

“Who are the private security officers accountable to? They are not accountable to the general public, but to their clients.”

Booming industry

Unsurprisingly, the insurance industry is also booming. One of the players in the insurance business is OUTsurance.

The company occupies a massive building in the heavily fortified suburb of Centurion. The modern building is surrounded by gated communities, with a mall sprawling with security guards around the corner.

“In the past seven years, we have managed to become one of the major players in the industry and we belong to a large, profitable financial services group,” says Trevor Devitt, head of communications of OUTsurance.

“In order for a client to have a home insurance [policy] with our company, we would assess the security measures in place and in some cases would request clients to install specific security to decrease the risk.

“If you live in a gated complex, we might insure your house without asking you to install burglar bars. If you live on the edge of a complex that borders the open veld, you will have to install them,” says Devitt.

“Basically, depending on the area and the house set-up, we may require that our clients install physical security measures, like burglar bars, security gates or electronic security. In theory, it would be possible to insure your house without any of these measures, but your premium would be so high that this is practically impossible.

“After people have filed a claim for theft from their property, we will ask them to install electronic crime-prevention devices, like alarms.

Devitt walks me through to the enormous call centre. Part of the success of this company, and others like it, is its use of the telephone.

About 800 people, mostly under 30, are working on two storeys. They are grouped in teams of 10 and are on the phone the whole day selling insurance, dealing with customer care and handling claims.

Hanging from the ceiling are some of the company’s slogans. “From good to great”, “From great to awesome”, “Recognition is our mission”: each letter is glued on to an A4 piece of paper in the bright company colours.

The atmosphere is buzzing, a radio is playing pop music in the background and employees are pacing up and down behind their chairs, talking hectically into their headsets.

The walls are filled with graphics that monitor the performance of every employee. They compete to make the most sales. At the end of the month, the winning team can indulge in a social event worth R1 000.

“It is a highly competitive environment, and that is good,” says team manager Theresa Alvares. “Being on the phone the whole day can be boring and the team enjoys competing with other teams. It keeps work lively and fun.” 

“We invent games and to keep the sales in our team up, and if one of my members does really good, I will reward him or her with a chocolate bar or a cold drink.”

The team that is based next to Theresa’s has built a horse-racing course on the divide between their individual tables. Each team member has a horse, and with every sale the horse can be moved forward.

“It is not only a matter of games,” says Devitt. “The salaries of these people are based on their personal performance. If you make more sales than the average person does, this will be reflected on your pay slip.

“If you are not doing good or if you cannot make the average, we will take you apart and talk to you, give you tips to improve. If you fail doing that, we will have to let you go.”

Competitive industry

Julius does not suffer from the pressure of a competitive environment, nor does he get prizes for his performance. He just drives the same streets, 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

“I know every house and even the car that belongs to every house,” he says.

We drive past a veld that divides the rich and the little less rich.

“There is an empty sewerage exit in this veld and the criminals like to hide their stolen things here. Sometimes I investigate it and bring what I find to the police.

“I get bored and buy my newspapers in the small supermarket that was robbed quite often. I sit outside in my car and read. It helps, because there has not been a robbery since.

“First I read The Daily Sun, then The Citizen, the Sowetan and finally The Star. I know everything that is going on.”

There is not much competition in Julius’s day-to-day life, but the industry itself is highly competitive.

“There are examples of companies resorting to crime in order to get a contract. They will pay criminals to attack clients of other firms and subsequently will approach the victims with the promise of better security,” says Irish-Qhobosheane.

“The industry is so diverse that it has become notorious for attracting other criminal elements as well.

“There are always cases of corruption where the criminals pay the companies or the guards to look the other way. And you can find examples of security companies tolerating criminal behaviour of their clients; they are there to serve this client and not to fight crime.”

Peace of mind

“The fact that a huge army of armed security officers is out on the streets in South Africa does contribute to the militarisation of our society,” says Irish-Qhobosheane. The more armed good guys there are out there, the more guns the bad guys will carry.

The most alarming danger involving the industry is, according to Irish-Qhobosheane, that there has not been sufficient debate about the how it should be regulated.

“The debate must start from the notion that private security in this country is a reality and must focus on the different roles of public and private policing. How do we ensure that we don’t develop a society with parallel justice systems where the wealthy have greater access into the justice system than the poor?

“How do we ensure that the public police start playing their part and that they will address the criticisms they are facing without using the [argument] for more power for the private security industry?”

It is not the private security industry that is painting a false picture of its members as crime fighters.

“We are not here to fight crime,” says O’Neale, Julius’s employer.

“We never guarantee our clients that we can protect them from becoming a victim of crime. We tell them that we are here to prevent crime and to assist them in the best way possible when they do become a victim. We sell peace of mind.”

Although Julius is bored, he is passionate about his job and committed to make his area a better place to live for all its citizens.

“If I see strange things happening at properties that do not belong to our clients, I will do my best to solve these problems.

“I do not have the legal power to enter these properties, but I can call the police or at least make my presence clear so the criminals might be scared.

“If all the different security companies would work together in protecting whole areas instead of just doing the job for their clients, South Africa would really be a better place to live.”

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