Private security companies have an important role in fighting crime but allowing them to take over certain policing functions is fraught with potentially serious problems. This increased privatisation of policing also erodes the power of a new democracy which has yet to consolidate its hold over its security organs.
Policing is a public institution, funded by taxpayers, to whom, through parliament, it is ultimately answerable. Imperfect, and difficult to implement, as the system may be, the SAPS can at least be called to account. They are also subject to an oversight body – the Independent Complaints Directorate. While it is true that the ICD is hopelessly under-resourced, there are moves afoot to improve its functioning. There is no denying that there are serious problems with policing (which are probably worse in some areas than others) but the deployment of security personnel will not provide an incentive to improve performance. In fact, it may have quite the opposite effect, and allow malfunctioning management and members to simply pass the buck.
In contrast, private security companies exist to make profit for their owners, and the public does not have the right to the same degree of scrutiny over their affairs as it does over policing. The only public safeguard is that the industry is subject to regulation by the Private Security Regulatory Authority (PSIRA) which falls under the control of the Minister of Safety and Security. Given the sheer size of the industry, and the fact that a large sector of it is unregistered and operating illegally, PSIRA as it is currently structured and funded lacks the capacity to ensure that the industry is adequately regulated, including in terms of gun ownership.
It must be stressed that there are many players in the security industry who behave in an exemplary manner. However, simply because companies are registered with PSIRA, and their staff do not have criminal records, does not necessarily mean that they behave honestly. The matter of a number of apparently registered security companies allegedly overpaid by the eThekwini municipality raises serious questions about contracts entered into between government bodies and security companies, and also shows how such practices can militate against transparency in government.
According to press reports, an audit report has shown that around R15 million is owed to the municipality by these companies, but it is refusing to divulge further details, using the pretext of possible criminal action against the companies concerned. Since public expenditure is involved, the truth must ultimately out, if necessary through the courts. In the mean time, will these companies be eligible to perform policing duties?
The lack of transparency in security company operations is exacerbated by fronting. Although difficult to prove, there are widespread, and apparently well founded, allegations of fronting (through, e.g. family members) involving members of the SAPS and certain politicians. Presumably security companies involved in policing work will be paid for it, so questions arise about how those participating will be selected – and how the risk of cronyism and nepotism will be minimised. What type of oversight will operate, given that the performance of police management leaves much to be desired?
Even assuming that only the services of truly professional and above board security companies are utilised, the increased privatisation of policing can only weaken, rather than strengthen, a state which is structurally still in the process of replacing its apartheid foundations. Short of a revolution institutions do not change overnight, so despite fourteen years of democracy the present government does not exercise the type of control over its security apparatus that is characteristic of a strong state. The creeping privatisation of security can only weaken it further – especially as the process of transforming the security industry has been slow, and foreign ownership remains a contentious issue.
If there were a will on the part of SAPS management the shortcomings which the involvement of the private security sector is meant to address could easily be remedied without changing the current role of security companies. There are already plans to increase the size of the SAPS with thousands of new recruits. When there is a pressing need to train so many serving police members in securing crime scenes, and in taking proper statements, why train security personnel in this work? Perhaps the question which should be asked is who really stands to benefit from privatised policing?