South Africa

South Africa

South Africa’s R40bn private security industry under threat

South Africa’s R40bn private security industry under threat

More is being spent by South African citizens on private security than ever before, R45-billion a year, to be exact. That’s a third more than the government spent on the police last year, making South Africa’s private security industry the fourth largest in the world per capita. But a controversial bill currently awaiting President Zuma’s signature threatens to throw the industry into turmoil. BY SHAUN SWINGLER for CHRONICLE.

Photos of Andre Rushin by Shaun Swingler.

At 06:00 on an autumn morning in 2016 Andre Rushin, an armed response officer for Secupro Armed Response in Mitchells Plain, responded to a shooting in Portlands, a quiet part of the suburb. He arrived on Barbados Road, the road he grew up on, to find the local pastor, a friend of his, lying on the pavement bleeding from three gunshot wounds to his legs.

Two suspects broke into his vehicle, took his tape, CD player and they took off and he followed them,” said Rushin, “He was shouting for help from neighbours, the [suspects] were on the other side of the railway line and as he crossed the line [one of the suspects] shot him. Three shots in the legs.

He managed to get himself home and from there he was taken to hospital,” he continues dispassionately. “That was my start to the morning. Other than that it was just normal routine work.”

Rushin is one of around 490,000 active private security officers in South Africa; working in armed response, cash-in-transit, and guarding. By comparison, SAPS employs 194,852 people and the SANDF’s total military force (excluding reserves) is 77,597. This means that the number of active private security officers in SA is nearly double the size of the SAPS and SANDF combined.

Many have argued that the proliferation of neighbourhood armed response companies is an indication of the public’s wavering faith in the police’s ability to keep us safe. And with over a third of all private security businesses being armed response, there are plenty of officers to go around.

The most recent Stats SA Victims of Crime survey found that the most feared type of crime is house robbery – so much so that 50% of households have taken physical measures to protect their homes, and 11% of households employ private security services.

In addition to this, the Victims of Crime survey showed public’s faith in the police’s ability to solve crimes has steadily fallen. In 2011, 64% of people had confidence in the police; this figure dropped to 58.8% in 2015/16.

Crime is rising on a daily basis… police don’t have the resources. People go into private security because they know the police can’t be all over,” said Rushin. “People are scared. They are scared for their lives … so they hide behind walls,” he said.

People who are frustrated and lack faith in the police are also more likely to take the law into their own hands when criminals are caught by the community.

I had a house break [sic] in my area and people with sticks stopped me to tell me there was someone in the house,” says Rushin. “I assisted them and finally found the guy hiding behind a washing machine. As I pulled the washing machine away the guy came up with a firearm in his hand. He said to me, ‘Ek sal jou skiet’. Luckily I overpowered him and I got him arrested.

As I took him out of the house to the vehicle, the community got hold of him and they started to beat him as I was walking him towards the vehicle. I was the only armed response officer there and the people really beat this guy up badly. He had an open [wound] on his head, blood was boiling out. [When the police and paramedics arrived] he was taken away to hospital and the day after the incident the guy had passed away.”

Army-issue security

Fear of crime has led to increasingly militarised suburban armed response companies, with residents spending large sums on so-called ‘tactical response’ units. One such South African company markets itself as “the most feared and effective armed response company in the country”. Another offers SWAT (special weapons and tactics) capabilities and advertises its services with a photograph of two of the company’s officers holding LM5 carbines, the semi-automatic version of the South African police and military-issue R5 carbine.

There has been much debate about whether R5 carbines are an appropriate weapon for policing, with an international policing expert, Cees de Rover, stating at the Marikana Commission of Enquiry that their use was “totally unacceptable” and violated international policing best practice, primarily due to the long range of the high-velocity round (which is used in the LM5 too) making the chance of injuring bystanders far more likely.

Militarism is an operational strategy but it’s also symbolic, because [armed response] don’t have any real power in the public space,” said Julie Berg, associate professor at the Institute for Safety Governance and Criminology at the University of Cape Town. “It’s a shortcut to gaining legitimacy. You are taken seriously because you have a bigger weapon.”

Unlike police and military, however, when private security officers are equipped with these weapons, they are not offered any protection from the possible repercussions of their use.

Metro police and SAPS are protected as state entities, but private security has huge liability and insurance costs,” said Berg. “If you’re going to carry a gun in the suburbs, don’t fire the damn thing because of the liability issues. If they’re firing, that security guard is individually criminally liable.”

Carrying a firearm is a very big responsibility,” said Peter Jackson, an employee of Premier Security based in Retreat. “If you don’t know how to use your firearm, it can be a very big risk for you. The only time I can use my firearm is when the situation is so tense it’s a matter of life and death,” he said.

Current research being done at the University of Cape Town under the supervision of Julie Berg has found that security officers in one suburb of Cape Town experienced an intense sense of relief when they were not given firearms by their employer, because it minimised the chance of them becoming a target of criminals for their weapon.

[This work is] dangerous, your life is on the line… it’s always on the line and that’s why you must always say a prayer before you go to work, because you might not come back to your family – the way violence is out there today,” said Rushin.

At all times your ears and eyes must be open. There are colleagues of mine who have been shot, colleagues of mine who have been gun-pointed [sic]. A colleague of mine was shot in Delft. He was fatally injured… those are the things that happen, and I thank God every day that hasn’t happened to me,” Rushin said.

Comparatively, wealthier suburbs in the city are spoilt for choice when deciding on an armed response company to secure their properties. These companies are often the first line of defence in these neighbourhoods, and are called before the police are.

I’m more than a security, I’m an armed response officer,” said Jackson. “If you’ve got a positive break-in at your premises, who’s the first one that you call? It’s the armed response company. The police don’t get their first, the armed response guy gets there first.”

Zwaanswyk, the exclusive equestrian suburb that stretches up the slopes of the Constantia Mountain range, neighbouring the similarly affluent suburb of Tokai, suffered numerous break-ins in the past. According to its webpage, Zwaanswyk’s entire perimeter was recently fitted with electrified fencing “primarily erected to keep marauding baboon troupes [sic] at bay but also serving as an effective security measure in conjunction with security patrols”.

This security measure along with active visible patrols by Premier and a number of other private security companies has resulted in a drastic decline in crimes in the area.

We haven’t had a break-in in almost two years because of the security we’ve got [in Zwaanswyk], because the clients actually prefer to have a dedicated vehicle in the area,” said Jackson.

They have a vehicle now that’s permanently stationed here. If a crime happens they get here very quickly because of the dedicated vehicle. It’ll be one minute or two minutes. I think that’s one of the things that’s keeping the crime stats down. They won’t even have any time to burgle or crowbar the gate or whatever.”

Jackson is a resident of the predominantly coloured suburb of Steenberg on the Cape Flats. “At the moment we have a little community that’s trying to fight crime, but no security. Some of the clients are connected to ADT or Chubb, but nothing like Premier.”

Issues of regulation

Despite often being required to perform similar functions to police, private security companies are not subjected to the same scrutiny and oversight. PSIRA, the Private Security Regulatory Authority, is the body put in place to regulate the industry in terms of the Private Security Industry Regulatory Act 56 of 2001.

PSIRA is funded through the fees of its members and as such functions as an independent body, however, “PSIRA is designed to regulate an industry in terms of it being a business rather than it being a policing force,” said Berg, “so it’s not like the Independent Police Investigative Directorate. It doesn’t look at criminality in the industry.”

In the past the authority has been marred by allegations of improper spending, poor management, a large backlog of cases, inadequate reporting of contraventions, and toothless investigations. However, new management within PSIRA has signalled a change in approach, and as Berg argues, the will is there for proper regulatory reform.

PSIRA is hopelessly under-resourced in terms of capacity, in terms of inspectors, in terms of reach,” Berg said. “It’s the same kind of issues that any oversight body would have. There was a very clear hostility a few years ago but I think things have now shifted a little. Slowly but surely they’ve tried to be more inclusive in regulating.”

Recently though, PSIRA’s biggest adversary appears to be the State.

The evidence shows empirically that private security is contributing to the public good,” argued Berg. “There’s a very blurry difference between a private interest and a public interest – they overlap a lot and that’s where the State is resistant to the idea that anyone other than the public police can do that.

When the Ministry of Safety and Security became the Ministry of Police that was a signal,” Berg said. “It used to be an inclusive ministry looking at all sorts of policing and community matters, but when it became the Ministry of Police it symbolically cut itself off — a shift to the over-centralisation of SAPS and the desire to do away with anything which is a threat to that.”

This attempt to monopolise policing and reign in private security culminated in the passing of a controversial new private security bill in Parliament in 2014. The bill is currently awaiting approval from President Zuma to be signed into law.

The chief criticism of the new bill centres on the power given to the minister of police to expropriate up to 100% of a foreign-owned security company, and limit foreign ownership of private security companies to 49%. These clauses would be in violation of South Africa’s commitments under the World Trade Organisation’s (WTOs) General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).

Then police minister Nkosinathi Nhleko has defended the bill, claiming that it was in the interests of national security.

We are aware that this industry increasingly gathers intelligence which sometimes can compromise national security,” he was quoted as saying in March 2015. “Some of these companies have strong links outside the country and it would really be unrealistic not to guard against these potential dangers.”

Many critics are confident the new bill will not be signed into law; however, if it is, experts have argued that it would be devastating to the economy. Economist Roelof Botha, cited in the City Press, said if the bill is signed into law he estimates more than 800,000 jobs across various sectors would be lost, as well as about R133-billion of the country’s GDP.

So is “national security” really the most likely reason for the bill’s existence?

When is private security suddenly going to mobilise and take over this country?” asks Berg, “sometimes they can’t even speak to each other in the same room. And how big is our military – 80,000? Are we really interested in a national security threat? Not really. If we were, we’d be bulking up our military, not downsizing it like we currently are.”

It is important to note that other foreign-owned companies that could potentially face accusations of “gathering intelligence”, such as IT companies, are not subject to the same kind of ownership or expropriation restrictions.

What may be a more likely explanation than “national security” for this bill’s existence is the power it gives the State to capture a fast-growing, incredibly profitable, R40-billion rand industry and profit, at the discretion of the police minister, from the expropriation of up to 100% of any foreign-owned security company.

Paradoxically, however, passing this bill in its current form would almost certainly decimate the private security industry as it currently exists, pushing out foreign investment, lowering GDP and costing hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process.

At a time when South Africans are feeling more unsafe than ever, is private security and armed response providing a public good by filling the vacuum left by an under-resourced SAPS, or is it merely a luxury for the rich?

What is certain is that if the Private Security Industry Regulation Amendment Bill is not adequately reworked, the effect it could have on private security and the economy at large could be catastrophic. DM


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