Skip to main content

The Rise of the Private Police

In South Africa, private security companies have eclipsed the police force, threatening the state’s democratic authority and replicating apartheid-era racial inequality. Is the U.S. next?

An employee of the Delta private security company joins police to enforce South Africa’s 21-day nationwide coronavirus lockdown, in downtown Johannesburg, March 29, 2020.,JEROME DELAY/AP PHOTO

Days before Christmas in 2018, private security officers removed a group of beachgoers from Clifton’s Fourth Beach, one of Cape Town’s most famous public waterfronts. The guards acted at the behest of neighboring white residents, resurfacing memories of the apartheid state, when Black South Africans were legally barred from accessing white public spaces, like Camps Bay, the surrounding suburb. But this time, it wasn’t the government enforcing racist legislation. It was the private sector, in open defiance of government-guaranteed rights.

The accused private-security firm, Professional Protection Alternatives, insisted that it was responding to an altercation elsewhere on the beach. Regardless, the episode spurred a string of protests, with hundreds of activists gathering at Clifton Beach in the following days.

More than two decades after the country democratized, a sense of insecurity persists in daily life in South Africa, and access to the public good of security has remained astonishingly unequal. In lieu of equitable access to security, affluent neighborhoods are adorned with nine-foot cement walls, expandable steel security gates, and armed guards. Even the state itself employs private security officers, hiring private guards to patrol the outside of police precincts and to carry out unseemly land evictions. Private security in South Africa is like a snake eating its own tail, as the government itself invests in the firms that are undermining its own authority.

The size of the private-security industry in South Africa is staggering: There are over three private security guards for every one public police officer. And that’s a conservative estimate, including only those guards who are officially registered and deemed active by the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSIRA). Despite the fact that white South Africans make up only around 10 percent of the country’s population, they employ private security at much higher rates. According to an annual survey conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council from 2003 to 2017, around 60 percent of white South Africans hire private security firms, while only 5 percent of Black South Africans do so.

Picture the omnipresence of the NYPD in Midtown Manhattan. Patrol cars and officers are stationed on nearly every street. They are so present that New Yorkers often have the feeling they could yell “Help!” and a police officer would come running, on the scene in moments. Now, to grasp the ubiquity of private security in the city centers of Cape Town or Johannesburg, replace every one of those NYPD officers with privately hired security guards in official-looking uniforms and vehicles, some even heavily armed. On an average day, a resident in one of these urban centers encounters dozens of private security officers, while the public police remain generally absent.

South Africa is no isolated exception. Private security is becoming the worldwide norm, covering everything from mercenary armies to armed guards for the world’s corporations and elites. Two of the largest global firms, Allied Universal and G4S, are on the verge of a merger. If it goes through, the new company would be one of the top five private employers in the world. It would also be the largest private equity–owned employer globally.

Apartheid Reimagined

In the years immediately following apartheid’s collapse, there was ample reason to distrust the government’s ability to curb crime. Gareth Newham, the head of the Justice and Violence Prevention Programme at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, says that corruption and politicians’ determination to cut corners in police reform made the service essentially defunct. “If you phoned the police station in those days, they wouldn’t answer the phone,” he told me. “They wouldn’t come at all, or they’d come hours later. The security industry was already quite well established, so it grew phenomenally from the birth of democracy onwards to its current size.”

For a few months in 2016, I lived with an Afrikaans family in a suburban neighborhood in Cape Town. Although not exceptionally wealthy, the upper-middle-class white family lived in what felt like a militarized compound. When the couple went to bed at night, they turned on an alarm system linked to a motion detector, so that any slight movement would beckon private armed guards to the property in mere minutes. This was in addition to the cement wall and electric fence surrounding the backyard, and the latched steel gates at the bottom of the stairs that would prevent any intruder from accessing their bedrooms on the second floor.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

In South Africa’s predominantly Black townships, the picture looks different. But residents still commonly opt for non-public security. Community-based vigilante groups and neighborhood watch organizations coordinate local residents to make their communities safer. Some groups patrol the streets, and in the Western Cape, they can become an officially accredited Neighborhood Watch Group, allowing them to access public funds (but only $680 annually). Other tactics include harnessing social media, with groups like Thembokwezi Crime Watch, which has nearly 40,000 likes on Facebook, posting photos of known criminals to alert the public to local threats.

Democratic Difficulties

Thami Nkosi, an organizer for the Right2Know Campaign, a South African nonprofit organization committed to advancing participatory democracy, emphasized just how little has changed for Black people since apartheid, and how private security has impeded progress. “We’re not excluded from white spaces legally,” he told me over the phone. “There aren’t toilets for whites and toilets for Blacks. We have political freedom, but it gives us nothing because we don’t have economic freedom. For a common person, absolutely nothing has changed in our lived experience.”

In response to the private security officers illegally pushing Black South Africans from Clifton Beach, the Black People’s National Crisis Committee organized a protest a few days later. The activist group decided to slaughter a sheep in protest, sacrificing it for their ancestors as a spiritual homage. The animal’s head was spray-painted with a bright-red dot, like a bull’s-eye. As the sheep bled out on the shore in broad daylight, the protesters hoped to garner the national press attention they believed the incident of extrajudicial policing deserved. The sheep lay motionless, mouth agape, as protesters sang around it. One protester fastened a sign to the slaughtered sheep: “Reclaim Clifton Beach,” it read.

The dearth of public services, such as security, isn’t new. It dates to South Africa’s apartheid state, and has led to the privatization of other traditionally state-sponsored services, like education. When the government transitioned to a democratic system in 1994, it went from providing police services to 4.3 million people—exclusively white South Africans—to 38.6 million people. The country’s infrastructure was woefully unprepared. The high rate of inequity in South Africa has made political participation feasible for only some, hindering the country’s realization of a fully functioning democracy. Today, South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world. And the rate of inequality has worsened since the end of apartheid, with the country’s Gini coefficient, which measures rates of inequality, increasing.

Transitioning to the country’s present-day democracy brought new challenges. By the time former President Jacob Zuma resigned in 2018, he was facing 16 different corruption charges ranging from money laundering to corruption to racketeering. Zuma wasn’t a unique case either. Dozens of other high-ranking officials, including the minister of the police, Bheki Cele, have also been accused of high-level corruption. The country also continues to be plagued by violent crime, with the number of homicides mounting in the last decade. This worsening landscape contributed to privatization, as citizens became disillusioned with the state and turned to firms to fulfill the traditional roles of the government.

Newham, the analyst for the Institute for Security Studies, says that the rampant corruption during Zuma’s era is being slowly overhauled. “During the Zuma years, it was the police and these other agencies literally just lying to the public about what they were doing,” he told me. “Now, things are getting better.” The country’s new administration, led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, is more promising.

The Neoliberal Turn

Private businesses have a stronghold in South Africa, and the privatization of goods and services has been a main driver for the post-apartheid economy. According to Edelman, a public relations and consultancy firm that conducts an annual survey on global trust, South Africa ranks the lowest of the 28 included countries for citizens’ trust in government. But when it comes to private business, South Africans are much more optimistic. In 2018, Edelman found that 77 percent of South Africans believed that CEOs should take the lead in progressing the country as opposed to waiting for the government to act. But when public services have been privatized, there were devastating consequences. For instance, two years after the French utilities company Suez assumed control over water provision in Cape Town in 1994, the cost of water and waste management increased by 600 percent.

Although a range of services like water have been privatized since the fall of the apartheid state, the security issue poses a particularly grave threat to democracy. The sociologist Max Weber conceived of the state as the only authority to have “legitimate monopoly on the use of force.” When the state cedes authority to private companies, it risks losing control. Citizens’ best interest is lost in the process, and in the case of South Africa, private security companies are beginning to infringe on Black South Africans’ democratic freedoms.

When President Nelson Mandela assumed power in 1994, there was an initial push for welfare-oriented economic reform. But after only two years, the social welfare program was abandoned for a neoliberal initiative called the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy. GEAR was a darling of capitalism. It focused on free-market forces and economic growth as agents to uplift the country to greater financial opportunities.

The pivot to GEAR mirrored a move away from the initial community policing strategy that had been promised during the democratic transition, with the government instead focusing on managerial conceptions of accountability. This shift created an opening for private-sector growth. As a result, the newly democratic government turned to outsourcing in order to bolster its capacity: namely, hiring private security companies and letting them operate relatively unfettered.

When it came to making a handful of white South Africans wealthy, GEAR very much succeeded. Today, the fibers of the apartheid economy remain intact, with more money streaming to the white elite combined with a thin stratum of Black millionaires, while the majority of the population struggles to make ends meet. According to Nkosi, the organizer who works for the Right2Know Campaign, the economic chasm has contributed to the flourishing security industry. “The more access to resources people have, the more paranoid they become of the poor and the working class,” he said. “Capitalism is about paranoia. Suddenly, white South Africans had the buying power to gate their areas, to buy up streets.”

Staying off the Radar

The stark legacy of racial oppression in South Africa makes the consequences of security privatization palpable, as adequate protection continues to fall along racial lines. Many white people live in fortress-like gated communities, while Black citizens are left vulnerable. Taking security into their own hands, many townships have formed vigilante groups, such as Cape Town’s People Against Gangsterism and Drugs, to keep watch and ensure their neighborhood’s safety.

Besides the Clifton Beach protest in late 2018 and a string of university student protests a few years prior, there has been relatively little focus on the gargantuan size of the private police sector and its pervasiveness in daily life. Public-private partnerships between the police and private security forces have made it difficult to discern where the state ends and the corporate power begins. And in recent years, the digital revolution has ushered in a new era of more-elusive private security. With an increasing focus on video surveillance and AI technology, private security companies have begun to rely heavily on computer-automated systems to flag unusual behavior. On-the-ground patrolling is still pervasive, but increasingly security is becoming digitized.

The “publicness” of South Africa’s private security industry is what makes it distinct. Julie Berg, an expert on the country’s private-security industry and a senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow, described in a phone interview how despite the sector’s extremely public-facing nature, it simultaneously tries to remain under the radar. “They do everything from telling South Africans that their cat is up a tree to showing up armed at a client’s doorstep,” she said. “In South Africa, there’s a publicness, a visibility, an obvious taking over of policing duties.”

But despite these very public acts, the private police don’t want to be seen as too big. “They want people to ignore them,” Berg added. “They want to be invisible, because the implications of them actually being visible are profound. Once they get proper attention, it could change the game.”

The Global Scope

Despite horrific police abuses, in America most police are at least public, so there is the possibility of greater accountability. The state of Illinois has just passed a major reform law that eliminates cash bail, enables the state to bring civil action against officers with repeated misconduct, and mandates new police training in de-escalation. But all the while, private policing in the U.S. is immense and rapidly growing.

In the United States, private security officers outnumber the public police by nearly 2 to 1, with 1.1 million private security guards to 665,000 public police officers in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In financial terms, the U.S. industry boasted a $38.5 billion revenue in 2019.

The rise of private security means that the distinction between public and private policing responsibilities has been increasingly blurred over the years. For instance, G4S, a multinational security firm based in the U.K., is responsible for policing a number of U.S. embassies around the world. (G4S is also one of the major players in South Africa’s private police scene.) And that’s just the beginning. Private armed guards are increasingly patrolling federal buildings, banks, schools, supermarkets, hospitals, and most recently, vaccine sites. Private police run privatized prisons. Mercenaries do combat duties for the U.S. military.

The training of security guards ranges from halfway decent to nonexistent. At some universities, college cops attend city police academies and are deputized as regular police. But most rent-a-cops get just a few hours of rudimentary training. Private security has to be one of the largest industries that is totally unregulated by the federal government, even though private security guards use force and make arrests. It’s an old story, dating back to the union-busting Pinkertons of the 19th century. What’s new is the proliferation and scale.

The industry isn’t just growing, it’s changing too. As seen with the pending $5.3 billion acquisition of G4S by the U.S.-based company Allied Universal, the already concentrated field is becoming only more powerful. The private equity–backed deal would create a private security services leviathan. “In the past, it was very much small companies, mom-and-pop types,” said Stephen Lerner, the former director of the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) property services division, which has organized over 75,000 security officers nationwide. “Now you have giant, multinational corporations which are a fundamentally different beast.”

When apartheid fell, supporters of Nelson Mandela hoped that South Africa would gradually become more like a Western democracy. Today, at least where policing is concerned, the U.S. and other nations are instead becoming more like South Africa.

Amelia Pollard is an editorial intern at the Prospect.


The American Prospect depends on reader support

If you are scraping by right now, please don’t give us anything. But if you have the ability to support independent, non-profit journalism, we are so grateful. Your voluntary contribution helps keep this website paywall-free. You can sign up as a subscriber with a range of benefits, including an opt-in to receive the print magazine by mail.

Click to View Subscriber Levels: IDEAS, POLITICS & POWER