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Private security firms here to stay, conference hears Print

May 15, 2006

By Hans Pienaar

Private security companies might not be the most popular service on the market, but we are going to need them for some time to come as the state has largely abdicated its responsibility for our safety.

This was one of the points of consensus emerging from a project on the private security industry launched at the weekend in Johannesburg by the Goethe-Institut and other sponsors.

Starting with a play and a discussion on Friday night, the project continued on Saturday with a gathering of experts from across the world.

Complicity by members of private security companies in crime was the subject of the play Armed Response, in which a young photographer from Germany refuses to sign a contract with a security firm. Employees then subject her to all sorts of terror in her home to force her to sign.

The play was meant to show how the private security industry (PSI) feeds on the fear factor, and that security paranoia was exaggerated in South Africa. Audience members took issue with this, saying South Africans have every reason to be paranoid due to the high crime rate.

ANC struggle stalwart Raymond Suttner had strong words for the PSI, saying it was a danger to democracy and had to be phased out. But he conceded in the same breath that this could only happen in the future. In our transition, a "security gap", had developed which, for now, had to be filled by security companies. But this could not be a permanent solution.

He said there was definitely a high level of crime, or at least the perception of it.

"The reality is that most of us have experienced crime."

But broader dangers to democracy emanated from the industry, even if there was no direct threat.

"My guess is that their managements used to be members of the former security forces." This raised questions of intelligence gathering, arms concentrations and capabilities to carry out assassinations.

"Ethics are unlikely to deter them from illegality," he said of the ethos of the PSI, citing his own experiences when confronting a security company with unlawful acts by one of its members. "They rely on clients not taking up irregularities."

He said the government should move to strengthen the police. But "I am not convinced there is an ethos of democracy in the upper ranks of the police and armed forces" either.

Gauteng security MEC Firoz Cachalia said transition had "certainly brought with it unacceptable levels of violence". But it had come against a background of vast global changes with global companies turning many services into market commodities.

Prof Fritz Sack, a German security expert, said what struck him about South Africa was the tremendous rise in crime, "a deliberate indifference by the state towards it" and the emergence of civilian substitutes for the state.

This was one the strongest themes of the rest of the conference, with architect Karina Landman showing how security villages and gated communities were becoming areas where residents were even starting to make their own regulations. 

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