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South Africa: private security industry booming

Police keep an eye on revelers who celebrate the New Year in Hillbrow Johannesburg, South Africa. 01/01/2024   -  
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South Africa

South Africa's private security industry is booming, as police struggle against record levels of crime.

While it may be Africa’s most developed country, South Africa also has one of the highest violent crime rates in the world.

A daily average of 75 murders and 400 robberies with aggravating circumstances were recorded in the year to February 2023.

Experts have warned that the country's police are fighting a losing battle against crime.

“It’s not getting better, it is getting worse,” said Anton Koen, a former police officer who now runs a private security firm that specialises in tracking and recovering hijacked and stolen vehicles.

“The murder rate is the highest in 20 years, violence is getting worse because our justice system seems to be failing us, the public of South Africa.”

There are fewer than 150,000 police officers in South Africa for a population of 62 million people.

Yet, in comparison, more than 2.7 million private security officers are registered in the country, making the security industry one of the world's largest. 

Stark inequality

Only a few can afford private services, leaving the vast majority of South Africans to rely on an under-resourced and disorganised police force, in just another example of the stark inequality in the country.

Private security companies earn a monthly fee for patrolling neighbourhoods and providing armed responses to their clients’ alarm systems. They also offer tracking and car recovery services, which often results in them getting involved in high-speed chases of car thieves and hijackers.

Figures from PSIRA show that the number of security businesses in South Africa grew by 43% in the past decade, while the number of registered security officers has increased by 44%.

Chad Thomas, an organised crime expert who has worked for more than 30 years in law enforcement and now in private security, said the high wealth disparity is a big factor in the increase of crime.

More than 580,000 private security guards are currently active and employed — more than the police and army combined — according to figures from PSIRA.

Soaring rates of violence

Violent crime in South Africa has spiked over the past decade after a period when it decreased substantially.

There were 27,494 murders in South Africa in the year to February 2023, compared with 16,213 in 2012-2013. South Africa’s homicide rate in 2022-2023 was 45 per 100,000 people, compared with a rate of 6.3 in the United States and around 1 in most European countries.

In December, Police Minister Bheki Cele announced the deployment of an additional 10,000 police officers, in an effort to reverse the upward trend. 

In an indication that police are overwhelmed, local government authorities in the Gauteng province that includes Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city, have recently introduced their own crime wardens to help with law enforcement.

The uniformed but unarmed wardens provide support to police operations but have faced questions over their legal status.

Thomas said that crime “can thrive in an environment where there is a disorganised police force.”

“We don’t have a disorganised police force because they set out to be disorganised," Thomas says. “It is simply because they don’t have sufficient resources [or] capacity.”

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