Private security booms in South Africa – as trust in police tanks and criminals make a killing

 ·21 May 2024

South Africa’s high crime rate and subsequent anxieties resulting from it, coupled with inefficiencies and a lack of trust in the South African Police Service (SAPS), has provided fertile ground for a sector to boom, protecting those who can afford to pay for it – private security.

The private security industry has experienced a more than 400% increase in active personnel since 1997, an almost 86% increase in registered firms since 2014, and growth to an estimated worth of R50 billion.

This comes as violent crime in South Africa has continued to climb, with the latest crime statistics showing an average of 84 people murdered every day in the country.

What is private security?

Broadly, private security can be described as an industry that operates on a profit-driven model, in contrast to the public police, whose mandate is serving the public interest.

It encompasses security services offered by businesses and organisations to clients for a fee, which involves safeguarding individuals, assets, property, and information against various threats, including criminal activities, perpetrated against their clients.

Various government strategies have been to increase the effectiveness of collaboration efforts between private security and the police.

SAPS personnel decline vs private security rise

SAPS policing numbers have declined while the population has continued to grow.

In 2014, there were 152,977 frontline officers for an estimated 54 million people. By 2023, this decreased to 145,256 officers for a population of 62 million.

The police-to-population ratio increased from approximately 1:353 in 2014 to 1:427 in 2023, far above the UN recommendation of 1:220.

This, coupled with the country’s struggles with crime and social challenges, has seen the private security sector now employing more people than the country’s police and military combined.

Becoming a key player in supplementing public policing efforts and meeting the security needs of individuals, businesses, and communities, “classical policing functions are today being accomplished through private security rather than the police service,“ said security experts Doraval Govender and Professor Krisandren Pillay in their critical evaluation of policing.

There are 15,113 registered private security businesses operating across the country (2023 official figures), an 85.57% increase from the 8,144 registered in 2014.

Graph: Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSiRA) Annual Report 2022/23

In 1997, there were 115,331 registered security officials in the private security industry, with recent statistics indicating that this has risen to 577,444 (as of 2023) active personnel, with majority operating in Gauteng.

While these are active personnel, the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSiRA) says that there are roughly 2.69 million security personnel in the country.

According to PSiRA, these appointments include unarmed guards (the majority) as well as highly-trained tactical units. The latter draw ex-military and police personnel due to more attractive remuneration compared to the public sector.

Graphic: Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSiRA) Annual Report 2022/23

Its importance has been consistently echoed by government, with Minister of Police Bheki Cele saying that “the private security industry continues to play a significant role in the South African economy and it is by far one of the biggest suppliers of entry-level jobs in the labour market.”

Being well-resourced and man-powered, private security are often first respondents to scenes, however there are also legal limitations in their duties, relying on the police force to respond efficiently if a crime is suspected to have or has been committed.

But, after interviews with multiple security providers, this has (largely) not been the case.

“A couple of my employees (security guards) were held hostage by criminals, and to this day, police have not even taken statements,” said Eben Hulley, head of E&B Guarding, a private security company that operates in Johannesburg South.

Who does the industry cater for?

Some experts argue that the use of private security services has created a division in security provision.

Those with the means can access better protection, leaving others more vulnerable, which is seen by some experts to worsen existing socio-economic inequalities and exacerbate social fragmentation.

“The private security industry has now become a major player; its services are specifically customised for those who have the financial means to afford them,” said Professor Pillay in his inaugural lecture on private security. 

“Private security is expensive,” said Francois Marais, CEO of Randburg-based private security company Ghost Squad.

But, “people ultimately pay because they know we will be there when they call,” said Marais.

“With private security being a luxury only wealthy citizens can afford, there is a concern that this industry [could] widen the inequality gap – namely leaving those most directly affected by crime most vulnerable,” said Professor Pillay.

Chad Thomas, an organised crime expert told The Associated Press that “people with money make up a very small percentage of South Africa. That means that the vast majority of South Africans don’t really benefit from this security industry.

“If you live in a traditional township environment, or if you live in an informal settlement, it is few and far between that you will see security patrols in those areas because they don’t have paying customers,” added Thomas.

This situation echoes similar circumstances in the healthcare and education sectors – both of which have come under scrutiny by the government, and seen massive changes where the state has tried to restore “balance”.

Notably, the involves the dismantling of private funding of healthcare through the National Health Insurance, and centralising power over school admission and language policies through the Basic Educal Laws Amendment Bill.

The government has already lined a path to intervening in the private security sector, with draft regulations looking at “professionalising” it.

Strict regulations

The private security industry is strictly regulated and overseen by the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSiRA).

To operate legally, it must follow several rules, including the outline of who is admitted to the industry and the standard of conduct expected of members.

These rules, controlled and shaped through regulatory strategies aligning with Private Security Industry Regulation Act, include:

  1. Licensing and Registration: Private security agencies and guards must be licensed by PSiRA to meet training and integrity standards.
  2. Code of Conduct: PSiRA enforces ethical guidelines for the industry.
  3. Accountability and Oversight: PSiRA oversees all private security in the country, monitoring compliance and addressing violations.
  4. Use of Force: Private security can only use force proportionately for self-defense or to protect others.
  5. Firearms Control: Private security must comply with firearm regulations, including licensing and safety protocols.
  6. Data Protection: Private security must handle personal data in accordance with South African laws, ensuring confidentiality and security.
  7. Restrictions on Activities: Private security cannot conduct criminal investigations or make arrests without proper authorisation.

Read: Criminals in South Africa are evolving – and the police can’t keep up

Show comments
Subscribe to our daily newsletter