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Private insecurity in South Africa

May 11, 2006

One of the peculiar features about post-apartheid South Africa is the outsourcing of policing to private companies. In the wake of a wave of violent crime that swept through the country in the early 1990s, the private security industry exploded, to the extent that there are now an estimated half a million security guards in South Africa. This is about double the amount of police officers.

Unbelievably, even the police have hired security guards: for example, Claremont police station in Cape Town hired an armed response company to protect it after a spate of armed robberies by gangsters looking for weapons.

This is a worrying trend that has been picked up before, and I first worked on the issue nine years ago while researching this article for the Sunday Independent.

An Army of Reactionaries?
At the time, the real fear was that the industry would form the nucleus of a Right wing army that could reverse the political change in South Africa. This is because many of the most prominent security companies were started by ex-Special Branch personnel, and recruited former cops, liberation soldiers, third force operatives and various other shadowy paramilitaries who found themselves unemployed in post-colonial Africa.

At the time, I was asked to write a private security briefing for a British organisation on the likelihood of these forces getting together and using force to destabilise South Africa’s new democracy.

My conclusion was that this was unlikely, due partly to disunity, but especially to the ideological defeat of the far Right. Most of the Right were disillusioned by the defeat of apartheid, and had set their sights on personal enrichment rather than political victory.

Cash from Chaos
Mostly, I think I was right, and some really nasty people became respectable business men and did really well out of the climate of fear that crime has created in South Africa.

Other ex-soldiers on both sides of the apartheid armies joined the other side of the crime coin, and it is not unusual to hear of car hijacking syndicates which feature ex-cops and former liberation guerillas on the same side. And of course, I am sure there are links between the public (police and courts), private (security companies) and illegal (gangsters) branches of the fear industry, but that’s for another day. Also for another day is the role of South African security guards in hotspots around the world, from Equatorial Guinea to Iraq.

What no one really anticipated though, was what would happened if all those guards went on strike. Since there are 17 unions organising in the sector, I think most people thought that there was too much disunity to ever result in effective indutrial action. This raises a really interesting crisis point for the country. If we live in a brutally violent society that is only kept at bay by an army of security guards, what happens when they strike? Do we sink into barbarism, or use the opportunity to more deeply critique a society built on inequality, guilt and paranoia?

In fact, it was the splits in the labour movement that precipitated the real crisis: after recent industrial action, 14 unions settled for an 8.3% pay rise for guards, which was rejected by South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu) members who want 11%. According to media reports, dissatisfied striking guards, possibly Satawu members, then went on the rampage: a number of working guards have been attacked as scabs, and six were killed after being thrown off a train – a tactic common among ‘third force’ operatives targeting members of the liberation movement, which again raises the question about the murky roots of the industry.

A major factor also has been the rejection by the security guards of the mainstream labour movement: Satawu is affiliated to the federation Cosatu, which is in alliance with the ruling ANC. Yet Cosatu had to call the police on their own members when striking security guards disrupted a May Day rally, chasing a speaker from the stage before battling police through the city centre, looting shops on the way.

Understanding this crisis, and the deep contradictions it shows, is vital. Despite its nefarious origins, the vast majority of security guards are poor Black men, who do a difficult, dangerous and boring job for poverty wages. Private security is one of the fastest growing sectors in South Africa, but it has largely been ignored by the labour movement, and organising has mostly been ad hoc.

This is the root of the current crisis. This schism could result in a renewal of the labour movement, with the careerists thrown out and a reversion to do-it-yourself shopfloor militancy. This what the government most fears, because an uncontrolled, angry labour force – much of it armed – would soon make common cause with community organisations fighting neo-liberal attacks, and the whole post-1994 stitch up could explode along its historic fault lines.

Alternately, we could decend into the kind of sub-criminal sectarian violence we have already had the first bitter taste of. Or the whole situation could slide into typical South African inertia, waiting to erupt another day.

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