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How do we become safe: police, the private security industry and communities

Professor Raymond Suttner

29th January 2015

By: Raymond Suttner

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For some years, going back to Steve Tshwete’s period as Minister of Police from 1999 to 2002, legislation limiting the scope of foreign-owned private security services in South Africa has been in the pipeline. It has repeatedly been withdrawn or held back because of opposition from the private security industry (PSI).  Legislation may now be passed which the industry argues is unconstitutional. Assuming the legal objections can be overcome and the legislation passed, is it good or bad for the country?

The PSI has seen exceptional growth in South Africa over the past 30 years. For some time the state security services have been outgunned and possibly outnumbered by private security services. In any democracy that raises problems. It was Max Weber who referred to the state as that body claiming the monopoly of legitimate force/violence in society. 

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But certainly one of the reasons for broadly accepting that definition is that it is important to limit those who have access to weaponry and are, in this case, licensed to use a range of forceful means to curtail the freedom – or even end the lives – of others.  Consequently, in any democratic state, having a huge PSI so equipped encroaches on the realm of the state and poses a new set of security problems.

The problems are not only in regard to the use of force in one or other more or less limited form. They are also to do with intelligence. Insofar as foreign-owned security agencies patrol almost every relatively affluent suburb of our country, they gather intelligence. To do their job they need to know the area they work in, and this includes the habits of those who live there. They also ought to know the area's peculiar vulnerabilities to dangers of one or other type.

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That is why the inhabitants want them. They want PSIs to know what is going on in the area in order to defend them, whether from robberies or other attacks. They want them to be patrolling and watching over their movements and their homes, in order to ensure their safety.

At the same time, although gathering this information/intelligence is supposed to help the PSI protect its clients, this has been proven to be insufficient in many cases. Nevertheless, insofar as the police tend to arrive long after a dangerous situation has ensued (for a range of reasons including resources and location) if at all, residents tend to feel some level  of safety by virtue of the presence of the PSI in their areas.

To achieve this measure of acceptance the PSI holds the type of information that can serve the micro-needs of a person who has contracted a company to protect his or her home. But this also happens to be the information that can guide an assassin or a coup plotter, or anyone who may wish to harm any individual or state. By using the same knowledge gleaned to protect a home, they also know how to attack it and those who live in it.

They can provide information on which a hostile state may wish to act, or information for a company hostile to an entity, perhaps for blocking a deal. This is not to suggest that there is evidence that this has happened. But any state that is serious about its own security does not allow such openings to foreign nationals – information that could be passed on to a range of people that could threaten a democratic state.

The problem, however, is that those who can afford PSIs use them because, as indicated, they cannot rely on the police to provide the same measure of cover. Also, it is part of the folklore around the PSI that if you do not sign up there will be a break-in; that one or other company will somehow ensure that you are burgled or have one or other unfortunate experience that leads you to sign up. That may not be true, but I have heard it repeatedly.

All things being equal, in a democratic state with a functioning police service it would be desirable to phase out private security, whether foreign or locally owned. But a democratic state would need to start by limiting and eliminating foreign ownership for the security reasons I have outlined.

Unfortunately, there is not a strong case to be made for the current South African state safeguarding democracy, where concern for security is selective; where, for example, the Guptas are allowed to land at a top military air base and where deals are made in secret with Russia and other states. So the argument for security does not really sound convincing coming from the present government.

It would nevertheless be desirable to have some debate about the PSI. In some ways it symbolises social inequality in South Africa: the wealthier section of the population, now including some black people, can hire private security and seal themselves off behind enclosures, much like the drawbridges which were lifted at night to keep the rabble out in medieval times.

The hype around private security is accompanied by attempts to curtail the movements of those on foot, who are primarily poor and black people; those who are “loitering” or begging – perfectly lawful activities on public roads, which sometimes happen to fall within enclosures. The enclosures (whose constitutional status I question) and the hype around security are seemingly becoming increasingly shrill, with residents inundated with text messages about ‘bravo males’ who look suspicious. Racial profiling of “potential criminals” is the norm. Residents are continually advised to increase their security but the danger never seems to decrease. And more and more officials are entrusted with ever-increasing information about the endangered communities.  

At this stage the level of intelligence at the disposal of the PSI may not endanger the state – but it certainly could, and may already be used against the very inhabitants it is supposed to protect. In our house, we once made the mistake of informing the security company that we were going away so that they could watch more carefully.  Instead we were burgled and the PSI admitted that their personnel were responsible, but for one or other reason no remedy was provided. I am sure this is more frequent with less candid admissions.

The existence of the PSI is symptomatic of the level of social inequality in South Africa. While those who are relatively affluent can pay for what they think is greater security, the poor are left to their own devices, often with an unsympathetic, ill-equipped and unresponsive local police station.

Just as apartheid patterns of oppression continue in other respects, patterns of inequality enable the richer section of the population to attempt greater measures of protection than are open to the poor. There is a need for debate on this question. But it appears that addressing this issue may need to be part of a broader recovery of democratic processes, one that would enable community policing to function on an effective basis alongside trusted state agencies.

Professor Raymond Suttner, attached to Rhodes University and UNISA, writes and is interviewed weekly on Creamer Media’s Polity.org.za. Suttner spent over eleven years as a political prisoner or under house arrest. His book Recovering democracy in South Africa will be published by Jacana Media in mid-February. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.

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