Phil Naledi has changed the lives of residents along a leafy street in the north-eastern Johannesburg suburb of Sydenham. At night, he paces up and down along the perimeter of high garden walls and security gates, keeping an eye on cars and other assets.
With criminals mostly discouraged from plundering the neighbourhood that, like so many throughout the country, has seen a sharp rise in crime in the past decade, residents in this part of Sydenham wake up refreshed every morning.
Naledi, however, has spent the past two years clocking out at the end of his 12-hour shift and heading straight for school in a nearby township. He never did see a future for himself in one of the country’s most exploitative industries, the 22-year-old admits.
Naledi earns R900 a month for guarding the houses in the relatively affluent suburb. He rents a room in the backyard of a house in a nearby suburb for R450 a month.
His story is typical of many employed to guard the lives, precious belongings and businesses of others in a crime-infested society with little faith in the police.
”No one can make a life if they spend so much time working for this little money,” he explains.
This week, he turned up for work, worried that he would lose his job if he joined a massive security industry strike for higher wages that saw security guards take to the streets after wage negotiations deadlocked.
About 90Ã‚Â 000 workers aligned to 13 industry unions in six of the country’s nine provinces took part in the strike that saw several thousands gather for angry protests in the city of Pretoria on Thursday.
Police reportedly arrested 11 protesters after cars were set alight in the city and said they planned to pursue charges of public violence against the culprits.
Unions are demanding wage increases of between 4% and 11% for workers and better working conditions — including the right to lunch breaks and to use a toilet without being charged with deserting a post on duty, and maternity leave for female guards.
The industrial action in Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, the North West, Free State, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal will be followed by a strike in the Northern and Eastern Cape, with KwaZulu-Natal workers joining for a repeat strike. Should a settlement not be reached by the end of this round of strike action, workers would strike indefinitely from April 3, union leaders said.
There are an estimated 280Ã‚Â 000 registered and trained private security guards in South Africa — a figure outnumbering by far the capacity of the police force — and nearly 5Ã‚Â 000 registered security companies.
They are employed for the purpose of armed response, guarding and escorting services.
The work is dangerous — guards at shops or in suburbs are often first in the line of fire during armed robberies and other crimes.
Men like Naledi who are employed in the suburbs are often unarmed and without any link to a company control centre. Security industry unions this week said less than half of security companies operating throughout the country pay the minimum monthly wage of R1Ã‚Â 500 prescribed by labour laws.
Yet the industry has seen a boom in the years since the fall of apartheid when levels of violent crime, previously confined mostly to the country’s townships, shot up in the former white suburbs.
At the start of the strike, South Africans — most being well aware of the paltry wages in the industry — reacted in horror and with the understanding that they would be left at the mercy of ruthless criminals.
But industry bodies like the South African National Security Employers’ Association assured the public that the strike had a low impact on their operations.
”There is a little absenteeism, but nothing major. Some threats and cases of intimidation have been reported, but everything is peaceful at this time,” the association’s spokesperson Steve Friswel told the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
In office buildings in some parts of Johannesburg, security guards arrived for work without their uniforms, saying they supported demands for higher wages but feared intimidation.
Hiring a security guard is fairly easy in light of high unemployment and crime in South Africa. Bypassing registered companies to negotiate a deal directly with an unemployed person to act as a casual watchman — even someone without any security-industry training or skills — is also relatively simple.
Security companies charge households anything from R150 to R400 a month to respond within minutes to alarm and panic signals during armed attacks, burglaries or medical emergencies.
In some parts of Sydenham, where electric fences are a common sight, households also have their own private security guards, doing 24-hour duty at the front entrance.
Generally, these are desperate measures on the part of people who know the feeling of having a gun pointed to their head by a car thief, or of being tied up, robbed and raped in their own homes — or at least those who fear this will be their fate. — Sapa-dpa