Sinikka Tarvainen
Displayed with permission from dpa German Press Agency

South Africa’s understaffed police force plans to fight soaring crime with the help of private security companies, which employ more people than the police and army combined. But the cooperation is not without challenges.

Johannesburg (dpa) – South African security guard David Mokgotho patrols Honeydew twice a day, driving through the streets lined with spike-fenced houses and parking his car to wait for suspicious movements in the high-crime neighbourhood of the country’s largest city, Johannesburg.

Should he notice anything significant, his company sends a WhatsApp alert to other local security operators and the police station, which relies on the private security sector to help it fight crime.

In one incident, Mokgotho and his colleagues chased burglars fleeing by car, blocking them with their own vehicle and holding them at gunpoint until police came to arrest them.

“In such a situation, you don’t think that you might get shot at,” says the 38-year-old, who carries a gun and has a knife and pepper spray stuffed into his bullet-proof vest.

Cooperation between police and security companies is increasing in South Africa, a country with one of the continent’s highest crime rates. The number of officially registered security guards – 450,000 – exceeds the number of police – 200,000 – and the army – 90,000 – combined.

“Police are facing challenges in terms of resources and vehicles,” and the private security industry can “complement” it, said a police source who did not want to be named.

There are plans to extend the cooperation to many police stations around the country, he said, adding that police have not yet gone public with the initiative and that it was too early to give details on how many police stations are already following the example of Honeydew.

“There are about 74 security companies active in and around the policing area [in Honeydew] and they form a very important part in the fight against crime,” said Captain Balan Muthan from Honeydew police. He was unable to give the proportion of security guards to police in the area.

The need for police to rely on the private security industry reflects the concern about crime in South Africa, where an average of 51 people are murdered daily – an increase of 20 per cent over the past four years, according to official figures.

An average of about 360 violent robberies were recorded daily between April 2015 and March 2016, while an average of 40 cars are hijacked every day.

South Africa’s history of colonialism and apartheid encourages violent behaviour, while widespread poverty and unemployment create a stressful environment that fosters crime, said analyst Lizette Lancaster from Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

The number of registered security companies has ballooned from 5,500 in 2001 to the current 9,300 companies, which turn over about 100 billion rand (7 billion dollars) annually, said Stefan Badenhorst from the country’s Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSIRA).

South Africa’s suburbs and businesses are wired with alarms and surrounded by electric walls, while watchdogs bark at passers-by and guards control vehicles entering compounds.

The company Community Support Services that Mokgotho works for has arrested 185 people and recovered 37 vehicles over the past six years, its chief Greg Pearce said.

But while the security industry may be able to lend support to police, there is also concern that it has a shady side.

The country has hundreds of unregistered security companies the qualifications of which have not been checked by PSIRA, said Tony Botes from the Security Association of South Africa, which represents registered companies.

Police are currently investigating 1,600 criminal cases linked to security companies, Badenhorst said. The overwhelming majority of the cases, however, are related to lack of registration or violation of labour laws rather than illegal weapons or links to criminals, he added.

The government is meanwhile concerned that South Africa’s handful of large foreign-owned security companies could gather intelligence and pass it to other countries.

“Some of these companies have strong links outside the country and it would really be unrealistic not to guard against these potential dangers,” Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko said.

A law limiting foreign ownership of security companies to 49 per cent has been in the pipeline since March 2015, but President Jacob Zuma has delayed signing it amid concern that the European Union and the United States – where many of the companies are based – could respond with sanctions.

Johan Burger, a research consultant with ISS, pointed out that the foreign-owned companies employ almost only South Africans. The government’s real motive could be to create business opportunities for its cronies in the security sector, analysts said.

In neighbourhoods like Honeydew, meanwhile, police and private security companies are honing their cooperation. Guards are allowed to make arrests only on their clients’ property or for serious offences, while police have more powers, Pearce explained.

Respecting such restrictions can pose a challenge. For the cooperation to work well in South Africa, the police source said, “we should be careful not to step into each other’s shoes.”