The Closer Look
As SA policing fails, private security steps in — but at a cost
South Africa’s private security industry was thrust into the spotlight in December 2018, when guards from Cape Town’s PPA Security company were accused of moving people off Clifton Beach at the request of the area’s wealthy homeowners. But the Clifton incident is just the tip of the iceberg. The private security industry dwarfs the South African Police Service in size, with well over twice as many private security officials as police officers. The industry argues that it is providing a vital social service — but critics say that it is increasingly, and illegally, usurping the powers of police.
When Dominic September is out on patrol, it’s him vs the baddies.
“Baddies” is a word that September uses a lot. He is a genial 35-year-old who laughs easily, but when it comes to discussing his job he grows serious.
“It’s a passion, catching baddies,” he says.
September wears a dark blue uniform, and rattles off stories of recent arrests he has made. It would be easy to confuse him with a cop. In reality, he is one of 498,435 private security officers currently employed in South Africa — as compared with around 190,000 police officers.
To September, the role of private security and that of SAPS are simply two sides of the same coin.
“We are all fighting crime. It’s just a different uniform we are wearing,” he says.
But there are vast differences in the powers granted to police and those afforded to private security officers. They are differences which are not always respected in practice.
In December 2018, the issue of private security officers overreaching their legal mandate came to a head in the pristine setting of Clifton Fourth Beach in Cape Town. The story has, by now, been exhaustively reported. Employees of the private firm PPA Security, contracted by Clifton homeowners, allegedly removed beachgoers from Clifton on the evening of 23 December following incidents of rowdiness earlier in the month.
A photograph published by PPA confirmed the presence of its guards patrolling the beach, though various other facts about the incident — whether the guards were acting in concert with police or the City, for instance — are still contested.
One point is undisputed, however. Private security officers have no powers to enforce bylaws or police public spaces.
“If people on Clifton had said [to the PPA guards]: ‘We’re not getting off the beach’, there is absolutely nothing they could have done about it,” Gareth Newham, head of the justice and violence prevention programme at the Institute for Security Studies, told Daily Maverick.
In South Africa, there is widespread confusion about the legal powers of private security officers.
“Security guards have no more authority to stop and question someone in public spaces than you or I do,” Newham says. “But people often comply with private security companies without knowing that they may not put their hands on them.”
It’s a Tuesday afternoon in the coastal Cape Town suburb of Hout Bay, and September is on patrol. He will have company on the roads: September estimates that Hout Bay has around 13 private security companies in operation, of which his employer, Deep Blue Security, is the “biggest for guarding”.
There are generally two elements to the private security business, September explains.
Some clients want guards installed on or outside their premises; others make use of an armed response service. At the top end of the armed response price range, clients will enjoy “24-hour surveillance” of their properties, with round-the-clock CCTV monitoring, as well as the standard offering of drive-by patrolling and the deployment of officers to a property if the security system’s alarm is activated.
September says that his firm sees about three to four “incidents” a shift. By 3pm this particular Tuesday, there had already been some action earlier in the day.
“There were two incidents where the same lady tried to break a car window in a parking lot,” September says. “We call that a ‘Code 64’. It means the suspect was mentally ill.”
Another incident took place at the local Spar, where the firm has a contract for guarding.
“Someone was shoplifting bottles of wine,” September says. “Spier white wine.”
This doesn’t sound like high-octane stuff, but September also has a well-rehearsed repertoire of more dramatic war stories, like the time he chased criminals who had robbed a liquor store all the way from Hout Bay to town in his car.
While we talk, September’s two-way radio crackles into life.
It’s a call put out by the area’s neighbourhood watch, alerting any nearby security personnel to three individuals behaving suspiciously outside a property. The call suggests that one of the three may have jumped over the wall.
September steps on the accelerator, and within minutes we arrive at the relevant property.
Another Deep Blue officer is already there. We are soon joined by an officer from another local private security firm, ADT, as well as a representative from Hout Bay community safety group, Community Crime Prevention (CCP).
This flexing of security muscle appears a bit excessive when the three suspects under scrutiny turn out to be young black children, ranging in age from around eight to early teens. They stand obediently on the pavement while the guards bark questions at them, and search their pockets.
It is illegal for private security officers to conduct searches like this, but the three boys dutifully comply.
They deny any wrongdoing and neither is there evidence of any security breaches in the vicinity.
The security officers smoke cigarettes and chat idly while waiting for CCTV footage of the alleged incident to arrive. It takes no more than 10 minutes for the footage to be sent to the tablet of CCP operations manager JJ de Villiers, who reviews it and then shows the rest of us.
The incident which prompted the call-out seems to have involved one of the children briefly leaving the pavement and then reappearing. The security officers decide that he most likely ducked out of view because he was smoking a joint and wished to escape detection from any pedestrians who might suddenly arrive.
The children are released with a warning.
Driving away, September explains that even if there had been firm evidence that the three were engaging in criminal behaviour, private security officers are not empowered to remove them from the scene. Instead, they are required to call SAPS to escort the suspects to the nearest police station.
“Sixty percent of the time, when police arrive we’ve already arrested a suspect,” he says. “Then police just come and do paperwork.”
What September doesn’t mention is that the powers of private security officers are identical to those of ordinary South Africans when it comes to making arrests. Anybody can perform a citizen’s arrest on someone strongly suspected of trespassing, public fighting, or having committed a Schedule One offence — rape, murder, robbery, and so on.
The use of force is only allowed when making an arrest if the suspect resists, flees, or is uncooperative.
But a private security officer who wished to remain anonymous admitted to Daily Maverick: “Sometimes we klap them around.”
South Africa’s private security industry is booming, with somewhere between R40-billion and R50-billion pouring into it annually. During the 2017/2018 financial year, there were 8,916 registered private security companies operating nationally, according to figures provided to Daily Maverick by the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSIRA).
The Institute for Security Studies’ Newham says that about 11% of South African households make use of a private security service.
“The growth of the industry has been as a result of the crime situation, but also people not believing that they can rely on police,” he says.
The 2018 Victims of Crime Survey showed that public satisfaction with SAPS decreased by 8% over the past six years, to its current level of 54%. Criticisms levelled against police by survey respondents included that officers failed to respond on time, were not sufficiently visible in the area, and were lazy or corrupt.
Under the circumstances, it is understandable that those who can afford it might turn to an alternative to the police in order to feel safe.
But here’s a startling fact: There is no firm evidence in South Africa that paying for private security keeps you safer, says Newham. No independent research has been undertaken on this subject to date.
Newham points out that criminals who commit house robberies — one of the most feared categories of crime — are usually experienced, and “do due diligence” in terms of scoping out security features in advance.
“Those people are not really deterred by private security,” he says. “So are you really safer with private security? As with most aspects of crime and violence in South Africa, there probably isn’t a simple answer.”
Private security companies, of course, are vehement in their conviction that they play a vital role in lowering crime.
Without private security in Hout Bay, estimates September, “crime would be 80% up”.
Four other private security officers interviewed by Daily Maverick had the same view. All also claimed that they did not, in practice, restrict their assistance only to their clients, but would stop and intervene if they could assist in other crime-related contexts as well.
Newham points out, however, that private security companies have an obvious incentive to play up anxieties around crime in order to drum up business.
“Private security companies want people to feel like if you don’t use them, you will be the victim of crime. They use fear to get business,” he says.
For the same reason, the most successful private security firms tend to be those which present a particularly tough-guy public image.
JP Smith, the City of Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for safety and security, told Daily Maverick:
“The private security companies that seem the most paraat [military slang for ‘gung-ho’], aggressive, militarised, often shoulder out of the way companies that do their work with greater care and circumspection.”
There was another incident involving private security in Cape Town along the affluent Atlantic Seaboard in late 2018 which received less attention than the Clifton controversy.
On November 31, a protest by striking Sea Point branch Dischem pharmacy workers that had turned violent was captured on camera. In a clip which circulated on social media, a man is shown aiming what looks like a paintball gun at protesters, who subsequently retaliated by cornering and beating him.
The man with the weapon was Neil Zive, the owner of Talon private security company, which has its headquarters close to the relevant Dischem outlet.
Zive was reluctant to give Daily Maverick too much information about the incident, as he said he was considering suing the police for mishandling the “illegal” protest.
In Zive’s version of events, however, the protesters “got into the street and were holding up all the traffic. Then they attacked my vehicle and I did what I had to do to protect myself. I got out unarmed and all I had was my riot control weapon”.
Eyewitnesses to the event beg to differ.
“It was a completely peaceful event until this guy came out and tried to shoot people,” one told Daily Maverick.
Zive says the incident happened to him in his personal capacity, and “wasn’t a Talon Security thing”.
But among some Sea Point residents, the incident exemplifies Talon’s over-zealous approach to private security. Talon, in collaboration with PPA, is contracted by the Sea Point, Fresnaye and Bantry Bay Ratepayers Association (SFB) as part of its Crime & Grime Initiative, aimed at keeping the area “safe, secure and clean”.
SFB’s website explains, simply: “SAPS cannot cope”.
The arrangement sees local apartment blocks and businesses pay a monthly fee to contribute towards the costs of having visible private security officers in the area, who can be seen daily patrolling the streets on Segways.
Yet accusations made by Sea Point residents to Daily Maverick included Talon guards committing assaults, racially profiling ordinary citizens, and treating homeless people with particular heavy-handedness.
Documentary-maker Isa-Lee Jacobson cited one such incident she witnessed.
“I heard shouting on the street outside my Sea Point flat,” Jacobson told Daily Maverick.
“As I got to the window, I saw two Talon security guards confronting a homeless man I know. They had backed him up against a wall and were spraying a substance into his face. Shocked by what I had just seen, I shouted out my window for them to stop. The homeless man has never shown any aggression towards me, over a number of years and numerous encounters.”
Adds Jacobson: “For me, it threw up a lot of questions about the remit of private security companies in public spaces in this city.”
Talon owner Zive acknowledges that his guards do attempt to move homeless people who are “making a scene and carrying on”, but denies the use of excessive force.
Zive says: “We have a right to ask them to move. They don’t have to move.”
As with many issues in South Africa, the spectre of race and class hangs heavily over the private security industry.
One of the reasons why the Clifton beach controversy elicited so much public emotion was that the photograph published by PPA of guards on the beach seemed to suggest that most of the guards were white, while the people they were allegedly most diligent about trying to move off the beach were coloured or black.
In reality, however, the vast majority of private security officers on the streets are not white.
Most are men of colour drawn from disadvantaged areas, whose job it is to protect the property of the affluent — often by treating with suspicion people who come from the same community as them.
Ridwaan Mathews, the managing director of Sniper Security in Cape Town’s southern suburbs, acknowledged to Daily Maverick that racial profiling was a “massive problem” in the private security industry.
In terms of the type of people who are monitored most closely in the industry, said Mathews, “it starts with the worst-looking, and then it goes to coloured, and then to black, and then to white”.
“That’s just the natural progression when you’re in armed response,” he said.
September was born and bred in Mitchell’s Plain, on the Cape Flats, and now lives in the predominantly coloured township of Hangberg, on the outskirts of Hout Bay.
Two other Hout Bay private security officers who did not wish to be named told Daily Maverick that they lived in the other buttressing township of Imizamo Yethu.
When asked if any of them benefited from private security in their own homes, all three chuckled dismissively. Yet the Hout Bay townships experience far more violent crime than does the well-heeled area itself, where events like murder and rape are rare.
None of the private security officers expressed any particular bitterness about this uneven distribution of security resources.
“That’s just the way it is,” September said.
Back on patrol with September, another call comes in.
One of Deep Blue’s clients is a school on the edge of Hangberg, and two suspects have been witnessed jumping over the wall. The school is locked up, with the school year only due to begin the following day.
When we enter the school, September and his colleague split up to search for the intruders. It’s not long before September finds the culprits: Two 17-year-olds, sitting on a flight of stairs.
They are students at the school, it emerges, who have jumped over the wall in order to access free Wi-Fi and do some downloading.
September explains that it’s now up to the client to decide the boys’ fate. He phones the school caretaker, who instructs September to turn them into the police. September rolls his eyes.
“This is petty stuff,” he admits. “But it’s up to the client.”
His call to a contact in the Hout Bay police, however, reveals that the local force has just one van available — and it’s busy.
This is a common problem, says September. The lack of police resources is, for him, another compelling justification for the existence of private security companies. In Hout Bay, the picture sketched by September is one of the private security firms and community organisations such as neighbourhood watches essentially picking up the police’s slack.
“I make more arrests than the cops,” September claims — though he adds that private security and the police generally “work nicely together” in the area.
The wider relationship between the private security industry and SAPS in South Africa is complicated and inconsistent.
A 2013 draft Green Paper on Policing produced by the government stated with disapproval that the private security industry is “increasingly performing functions which used to be the sole preserve of the police”.
SAPS failed to respond to Daily Maverick for comment on the current nature of the relationship between the two entities.
Newham says it’s difficult to generalise on the topic.
“Sometimes there’s good co-operation between the two, and private security companies are used as a kind of force multiplier,” he says.
“Good relationships tend to be between individuals, though that can result in police turning a blind eye to abuses.”
But there is sometimes tension between the two groups, partly because it’s in the police’s interests to downplay the prevalence of crime in an area, while for private security companies the opposite incentive applies.
The City of Cape Town’s JP Smith says that SAPS is missing a trick when it comes to potential co-operation with private security companies.
“If [the industry] is properly structured or managed, it could contribute tremendously to plural policing,” he says.
Hout Bay appears to be an area where police and private security companies work harmoniously together. Sea Point: Not so much.
“Our biggest problem is that police do not co-operate with us,” Talon’s Zive says.
“We can catch a guy breaking the law, and for two hours, three hours, we sit there waiting [for police]. We’re stuck between a rock and hard place because we don’t have the legal authority to do anything. But private security means 500,000 more eyes and ears on the ground, and police could use that resource if they wanted to.”
At the school in Hout Bay, the caretaker decides not to bother waiting for police to arrest the two teenagers.
They are released — with a warning to appear in the principal’s office first thing the following morning.
One of the most effective tools in the armoury of private security companies is, increasingly, CCTV.
At the Deep Blue headquarters in Hout Bay, four employees sit in a darkened control room, constantly monitoring a flickering bank of screens feeding footage from cameras installed outside their clients’ properties.
Judy de Beer, technical manager of Deep Blue, told Daily Maverick that the firm aims to “mostly focus on CCTV now”, rather than on human patrollers.
“CCTV cameras don’t sleep,” she says wryly.
The company also makes use of licence plate recognition software, which allows them to track cars deemed to be suspicious when they enter Hout Bay.
This practice is increasingly common in both Cape Town and Johannesburg, with private companies using CCTV cameras and licence plate recognition software to build up intelligence databases to which both governments and other private security companies can then subscribe.
“The collection of personal information — which includes motor vehicle registration numbers — by private security agencies as well as private citizens, such as people who are part of neighbourhood watches, is alarmingly widespread,” says Heidi Swart, an investigative journalist who has written extensively on the surveillance of ordinary South Africans.
“In fact, it is common practice. And it remains, disturbingly, unregulated by a legally mandated, independent regulatory body. It’s basically a free-for-all.”
This issue of private security regulation, or lack thereof, is one that the industry’s critics repeatedly return to.
JP Smith rattles off a list of the bodies which conduct oversight on the SAPS, including watchdog the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) and Parliament’s police committee.
By contrast, he points out, the only entity tasked with regulating the much bigger private security industry is the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSIRA).
PSIRA has a detailed code of conduct with which registered private security officers must comply. In practice, however, even some of the most basic prescriptions — such as the rule that all private security officers must wear a visible name badge — are often ignored. Only two of the five security officers on duty interviewed by Daily Maverick for this reporting were wearing a name badge. (One was September.)
The industry regulator provided Daily Maverick with a list of possible penalties for non-compliance, ranging from the withdrawal of accreditation to a fine not exceeding R1-million.
Yet such sanctions are meaningless if PSIRA lacks the capacity to do the necessary inspections, or investigations into complaints, across the entire industry.
In the case of the Clifton debacle, says Smith, the City of Cape Town has laid a complaint with PSIRA about the conduct of PPA. He has little hope for a satisfactory outcome.
“PSIRA has one gentleman with limited investigative tools [to follow up on such complaints],” Smith says.
The problem of the industry’s lax regulation was brought into the spotlight in 2012 when Parliament held public hearings on the Private Security Industry Regulation Amendment Bill.
The legislation was controversial because it proposed to severely curtail foreign ownership of private security companies, and has yet to be signed into law.
Beyond this aspect, however, the resistance of the industry to greater regulation was made clear at the hearings.
In fact, one of the arguments made to Parliament by attorneys representing the private security industry was that security officers should be granted greater powers — including the right to search suspects as police do.
Since that time, the list of controversies in which South African private security companies have found themselves embroiled is long and ugly.
It includes private security officers during the 2012/2013 Western Cape farm protests allegedly shooting protesters; a private security company serving the Jewish community allegedly engaging in racist harassment; the University of Johannesburg allegedly using undercover security guards to gather intelligence on #FeesMustFall protesters; and the City of Cape Town paying millions to a private security firm to secure an unused property from occupying residents, in the course of which one resident was fatally stabbed by a guard.
Newham warns, however, that it would be unfair to tarnish the entire industry as unethical or non-compliant. He points out that of the inspections that PSIRA did manage to undertake in 2018, only a small percentage of firms and officers were found not to be complying with the relevant regulations.
Smith is similarly cautious about smearing the whole private security industry — but he also told Daily Maverick that the Clifton incident is by no means isolated.
“We are seeing the increasing prevalence of [private security companies] policing public space,” he says.
“I personally get about one or two complaints [about this] every month.”
Such complaints vary from private security companies “aggressively searching” individuals in public areas, to reckless driving by officers.
“Clifton was a flashpoint, but it will not be the last [incident],” Smith predicts.
When Daily Maverick visited Clifton on a recent Saturday morning, all was quiet. None of PPA’s private security officers were to be seen on the beach.
Ask employees of other private security firms what they think about the Clifton incident, and chances are good that they will profess shock and disappointment in response to PPA’s actions.
Sniper Security’s Mathews reminisced about going to Clifton as a younger man with his group of friends. As coloured men, he said, they might well have been targeted by the likes of PPA’s guards.
“Who are you to limit my movements in an open space?” he asked.
At the same time, Mathews expressed some empathy for PPA’s management.
“They obviously have high-profile clients who can be extremely demanding,” he said.
But in their situation, Mathews says he would have told the clients: “This is a public space. You can’t limit people’s movements.”
His alternative solution to assuage the concerns of Clifton’s high-maintenance clients?
“We would recommend CCTV in key areas, number plate tracking systems…” DM
Additional reporting by Leila Dougan and Suné Payne.