August 3, 2021

Johannesburg, kingdom of private security

Night falls on an affluent district of Johannesburg and three guards armed to the teeth set out on patrol. Earlier, they met to put on the uniform, test their assault rifles… and pray. After having detailed the incidents of the last twelve hours, in the gym of the “Barracks”, the commander questions the relief, a dozen ninjas to attention: ” Other questions ? So we lower our heads. “ Caps withdrawn between joined hands. Amen.

“I also pray every morning”, told AFP Forget Ndlovu. “This job is dangerous, you never know if you’re going to come home.” We help others to have a better life ”, jokes this 46-year-old team leader, who admits to being “Much better paid” than a policeman. Besides here, in the rich suburbs, “People rely on us, not the police”, inefficient and greedy in baksheesh, confides this veteran of Cortac, a key private security company in the megalopolis of 4.5 million inhabitants. Private agents are “Many more patrolling at night than the police”.

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In South Africa, the security sector employs 500,000 officers in the field – a valuable source of employment in a country with over 30% unemployment – while there are only some 150,000 police officers. The CV of “Private” : a driver’s license, firearms training, an empty criminal record.

False alarms

Two or three men per pick-up, one of them with a dog handler and his animal. “To flush out suspects when we know that they are hiding after an intrusion”says Ryan, 25, who prefers not to give his last name. In the dewy evening light, joggers greet the vehicle, the guards in their narrow casemates too. A landscape of complexes hidden behind gates, barriers operated by a guard, high walls and barbed wire.

From 5 pm, in this district of Linksfield, the high-pitched alarms mingle with the barking of the dogs. It’s rush hour for the private security that protects every home. Unthinkable to live without them, as crime is high. And at this hour, people come home from their day, forgetting the alarm or triggering it without doing it on purpose, multiplying false alarms.

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Insecurity, very real in the South African economic capital and aggravated by the misery linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, feeds great mistrust. Recurring topic of conversation, local obsession. In this archidangerous country, one of the most violent in the world – with a rate of 36 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, against a world average of seven – it is not a question of slackening off.

In “Joburg”, walking is strongly discouraged. Walkers are held up every day. Neighbors share details of the latest burglaries or assaults on WhatsApp groups. modus operandi, descriptions of suspects …

“We know every corner”

All of a sudden, you have to go for it, a subscriber has triggered his “Panic button”. In the pick-up, the conversation stops. Maybe a real emergency. Two streets before the destination, the exchange calls back on the talkie. “False alarm. “

Twenty minutes later, another emergency. This time in a shopping center. The men, guns in hand, jump out of the pickup and run off. “Oulah darlings we are moving away, something is happening”exclaims a hairdresser who brings his clients back to his shop. Palpable tension in the parking lot. Everyone holds their breath. “Pressed the button by mistake”, reports, laconic, one of the agents.

The routine is to drive slowly and in a loop around the neighborhood. Without ever repeating the route – you have to deceive the enemy. Mpengesi and Mabuya, who only give their first name, never change scope. “That way we know every nook and cranny. “ Slow down when you spot a car entering or leaving a garage. Wait for the end of the maneuver. “It is often in those few seconds that the robbers attack. “

A gate remained open. We ring. “The owner is waiting for a repairman. “ Okay, we’re alerting the other cars. Regularly, “The control room receives calls signaling people or suspicious behavior”, says Mabuya. Like that car parked for a while, a black man at the wheel. The Cortac team intervenes, questions the gentleman, an Uber driver who is waiting for the customer. “We told him to move around, he gives the neighbors the chips. “

The World with AFP