American Renaissance

South Africa’s Growing Private Army

Crime has become big business in South Africa, and so has fighting it.

Franz Kruger, BBC Johannesburg, Mar. 23

In a kind of mirror image of the syndicates operating in various sectors of the underworld, an industry has developed to service people’s fear of being hijacked or robbed.

Wherever there is a criminal opportunity, there is another in protection.

Tucked in between an arrangement of office pot plants there’s a startling sign: “Keep off: Infantry bush game reserve: snakes and dangerous animals around.”

And indeed, there are animals: some plastic snakes twisted around the dusty leaves, while a few goldfish stare balefully out of a murky fish tank.

These are the Brakpan offices of the Anti Crime Force Training Academy and Guard Division.

With energy and imagination to make up for a lack of resources, owner George Morake has tried to create a military atmosphere.

The walls are festooned with flags and plastic replicas of the tools of the trade, walkie talkies, handcuffs and guns.

‘Crime profits’

The academy offers the most basic qualification as a security officer after just a week’s training.

But for a special price of R300 ($45), Mr Morake offers a three-week training package to give them three qualifications, Grades E, D and C.

With those, they qualify for entry-level jobs in access control or security guarding that pay from R1,300 ($194) a month.

Brian Adams, the vice-chair of the recently established Security Industries Alliance, says the industry turns over between R10 billion and R18 billion, depending on how you define it.

There are around 4,500 companies and entities, although a few very large companies — including some foreign-owned — dominate the sector.

There are around 500,000 security guards, half of them employed in-house, the other half by security companies.

The comparison with the police is quickly made.

The industry’s turnover is not very far behind the police budget, which was just under R20 billion in 2003.

Worrisome state

According to a 1999 study by the Institute for Security Studies, there were then around four security guards for every uniformed member of the police engaged in visible policing.

It almost amounts to a private army, and it makes the government a little uncomfortable.

“If you take the entire complement of people who are under arms in the private security industry, it’s larger than people who are in the armed forces of the country, and this is worrisome.” says Security Minister Charles Nqakula.

Mr Nqakula says he is not suggesting that the arms that these companies have will at some point be turned against the government, but he says the situation remains disconcerting.

But Mr Adams says most of the security guards are actually unarmed, and the government’s concern is misplaced.

While there may be a small minority who are hostile to the government, the overwhelming majority want to work with the authorities.

There is no sense in “looking for enemies behind every bush”, he says.

Crack troops

It’s not hard to see the racial issues that add to this potent mix of tensions between private and public security.

Those who can afford private security — sometimes called Model C security — are largely white.

The industry lives on a crime problem that has become a convenient stick to beat the government.

Out in a light industrial area in Pretoria, the distinctive green “cash-in-transit” vehicles of Fidelity Guards are returning to base at the end of the day.

These guards are the industry’s crack troops, well trained and well paid.

They are also mostly white and include many former police, prisons and defence force officers.

Soldier’s stress

Guard Johan Chamberlain was attacked by six armed men in the Atteridgeville post office.

They got away with a cash box containing around R20,000 ($3,000).

It was his fourth robbery in three years, he says.

Mr Chamberlain is already on medication and seeing a psychologist twice a week to help him deal with the stress.

“Nobody knows what stress you’re live under. You look into a gun, and you see where the bullet is, and that bullet can come out at any moment and hit you right between the eyes,” he says

If these are the private sector’s elite troops in the war against crime, the recruits training at Morake’s academy are the foot soldiers.

Mr Morake has already started another branch in Kempton Park, and dreams of setting up a proper barracks to run his training courses.

“The war on crime can be won,” declares Mr Morake.

But for the foreseeable future, security is going to remain a growth industry in South Africa.