4 minute read
9 Jun 2021
11:44 am

PICS: Security firms in SA employ more personnel than the police


The private security sector creates work for more than 2 million people in South Africa.

Cortac security guards stand at attention while being briefed by their officer before starting their night shift in Johannesburg. Picture: AFP/Michele Spatari

As night falls over a leafy Johannesburg suburb in South Africa, private security guards step into camouflage clothing and load their rifles, preparing to set about on a night patrol.

A commander briefs the men in the gym of the company’s headquarters, reviewing interventions that occurred during the previous 12-hour shift.

“No questions?” he asked the solemn line of guards before him, beret in hand.

“Okay, let’s bow our heads and pray,” he said in Xhosa.

After a unison “amen”, the men pick up their arms and file into black and yellow painted pickup trucks branded with the company’s name, Cortac, one of South Africa’s leading private security service providers.

“Every morning I pray,” admitted Forget Ndlovu, 46, while his teammates boarded their vehicles.

“This job is dangerous, I never know if I will be able to go home,” he said.

security guards, private security, cortac

Picture: AFP/Michele Spatari

Counting on security guards

“We help others get a good life,” he added, noting that the job was significantly better paid than working for the police.

The Cortac vehicles set off into the pink evening light, driving in slow circles past electric gates and high walls topped with barbed wire to protect the plush homes of Johannesburg’s wealthy suburbs.

Joggers and security guards in narrow, wooden Wendy houses built on properties for live-in domestic staff, waved as the pickups rolled past.

“The community is counting on us, not the police,” Ndlovu said.

Private security industry in SA

South Africa has one of the world’s largest private security industries, employing more personnel than the police, according to the national Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority.

security guards, private security, cortac

Picture: AFP/Michele Spatari

The sector creates work for more than 2 million people in a country where unemployment stands at more than 32%.

To qualify for Cortac positions, applicants need a driver’s licence, firearm competency and a clean criminal record. Many are ex-soldiers and former cash-in-transit guards.

Most nights ‘relatively uneventful’

Ahead of each night patrol, guards are divided into groups of two or three per vehicle. Some also carry a dog.

“We only use the dog to go inside a house to find a suspect hiding,” said 25-year-old Ryan, who did not wish to give his full name.

security guards, private security, cortac

Picture: AFP/Michele Spatari

Most nights are relatively uneventful for the private security teams.

There is usually a bit of a rush hour from around 5pm, when residents return from work and accidentally set off alarms, touching off a chorus of dog barks.

But it is better to be safe than sorry in South Africa’s crime-laden financial capital, where troubles have been worsened by the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘Suspicious people’

Burglaries, assaults and car hijackings are a popular conversation topic among better off locals, who seldom venture around the city on foot for fear of being mugged.

security guards, private security, cortac

Picture: AFP/Michele Spatari

Neighbourhood WhatsApp groups share daily messages on the latest break-ins and seemingly shady movements in the area. Cortac agent Mabuya tells AFP:

If people are loitering, clients call our control room to say: ‘Suspicious people are in front of my property, can you come check?’

Panic calls

Inside their armoured vehicle, Mabuya and his colleague Mpengesi – who did not wish to give their full names – explain that patrol routes are randomly switched around “so as not to be predictable”.

“We wait when cars go into houses to make sure the client is safe,” said Mpengesi, noting that burglars sometimes take advantage of slow-closing electric gates to hit.

“If we see an open gate, we will go inside and enquire,” he added.

security guards, private security, cortac

Picture: AFP/Michele Spatari

Suddenly the conversation stops. Someone nearby has pressed their panic button, immediately alerting the Cortac control centre.

The driver revs into gear and accelerates towards the distress call. But two blocks before their destination a voice blasts through the walkie-talkie. It’s a false alarm.

Twenty minutes later, the crew respond to another panic call, this time at a nearby shopping centre.

security guards, private security, cortac

Picture: AFP/Michele Spatari

The driver parks a few metres from the entrance as Mpengesi and Mabuya break into a run, rifles in hand.

“Ladies, let’s get back inside, it’s not safe out here,” says a hairdresser, ushering his customers back into the salon. Minutes later, the men return. “A mistake.”

Later that evening, the call centre asks the team to check out a parked car, black driver behind the wheel, flagged by a worried neighbour.

One of them walks over to investigate and simply finds an Uber driver waiting for customers, parked to save money on petrol. He is asked to leave because he is making people “nervous”.

Gersende Rambourg © Agence France-Presse

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