Strolling through a peaceful residential area of Johannesburg is striking for anyone who does not live in South Africa. Bordering the alleys of jacaranda trees, high walls hide the houses from view, topped with electrified fences or barbed wire and bearing this warning: “armed response” (“armed intervention”).
Cars displaying the logos of private security companies patrol all day long, ready to provide this “armed response” in the event of a burglary or shooting.
Three times more private agents than police officers
In the country, the number of these companies continues to increase, despite the economic crisis. In 2022, they are more than 11,500 registered, employing nearly 570,000 security officers. It is three times the number of police officers (182,000 in 2021), which continues to decrease.
Beagle Watch, a company based in Johannesburg, promises an armed intervention within five minutes of a phone call or the triggering of an alarm. In the neighborhoods placed under its vigilance, video surveillance cameras are installed at the corners of the streets, with facial recognition.
“Every house needs an alarm, an electric gate, cameras, says André Aiton, director of Beagle Watch Armed Response. In the past, armed robberies were not as violent as they are today. »
68 people killed every day
In fact, crime, which has been on the rise since 2012 in South Africa, is the source of the success of private security companies. In the first quarter of 2022, the number of people killed jumped by 22.2% compared to the previous year: on average 68 are killed every day.
According to researcher Gareth Newham of the Institute for Security Studies, this increase in crime is directly linked to corruption in the police, which has undermined their structures and allowed organized crime to rise: “In ten years, the ability of the police to solve murders has halved: they solve only 15% of murders reported to them, and 15% of armed robberies. (…) In the last five years, we have seen a change, with more and more murders linked to organized crime, which account for half of the murders today. »
Private companies as reinforcements
South Africans are increasingly less confident of their police: according to a 2021 Afrobarometer poll, only 24% have faith in their police, and more than half believe that some or all of the police are corrupt. “The bigger the private security industry, the more people are willing to pay for their security, and the less they feel they need the police,” worries security analyst Ziyanda Stuurman.
Contacted, the police say they do not feel threatened by this growing gap between the number of police officers and that of private security officers. “He is a strategic partnerassures Colonel Athlenda Mathe. We are not worried because these companies are regulated by the PSiRA (regulatory authority for the private security industry, editor’s note). They are an additional force on the ground and constantly assist the police officers, in responding to incidents and in reporting them. »
Increasingly essential “partners”: for major operations, the police now almost systematically call on the support of these private companies.