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Does SA have the largest private security industry in the world?

This article is more than 9 years old

South Africa’s suburbs and business are wired with alarms and surrounded by high walls, barbed wire, electric fences and motion sensors. Big dogs with big teeth bark at strangers from behind steel gates. Gun-toting private security guards patrol the streets. The high levels of security are the first thing that many visitors to the country remark on.

But does South Africa really have the largest private security industry in the world as is so often claimed in dinner table conversation?

Some of the country’s politicians and police officials seem to think so.

Last year the national police commissioner, Riah Phiyega, made the claim during the release of police crime statistics. And three years ago, the then police minister, Nathi Mthethwa, used the claim to justify the need for the Private Security Industry Regulation Amendment Bill.

We took a look at the evidence.

Unsubstantiated claims

A security guard on duty at Johannesburg's Neslon Mandela Square shopping mall. Photo: AFP/Stephane de Sakutin
A security guard on duty at Johannesburg's Nelson Mandela Square shopping mall. Photo: AFP/Stephane de Sakutin" />

Our first stop, Musa Zondi - the spokesman for the current minister of police - was little help. “I can’t answer what the source of data for the previous minister was,” he told Africa Check.

Phiyega’s spokesman, Solomon Makgale, told Africa Check this week that he believed her comments had been based on a report compiled by the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSIRA). Makgale said he was “speaking to PSIRA about the report and if we can access it.”.

So far, we’ve heard nothing back from him.

Mthethwa is now the minister of arts and culture. Questions sent to his office went unanswered.

Boots on the ground

According to a PSIRA document compiled for a 2013 workshop on guarding and security the South African private security industry is “considered one of the largest in the world”. A spokesman for the organisation, Mpho Mofikoe, said today that their most recent research did not show that South Africa had the largest security industry int he world.

PSIRA’s 2013/14 annual report shows that out of 1,868,398 registered security officers in South Africa 487,058 were classified as active. This includes people employed in security, active guarding, cash-in-transit and armed response businesses.

By comparison, the South African Police Service employs 194,852 people, of whom 103,746 are employed in visible policing and 6,331 are employed in protection and security services.

Comparisons are tricky

The most recent and comprehensive international comparison of the private security industry was conducted in 2011 by the Small Arms Survey, an independent research project located at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. The 2011 study contains data on the private security industries in 70 countries around the world.

Nicolas Florquin, the principal author of the study, told Africa Check that comparing the relative sizes of private security industries in various different countries wasn’t a straightforward exercise. “Generally speaking, data on [private security company] personnel is full of caveats and [it’s] difficult to compare country to country due to varying reporting practices”.

Darren Olivier, a senior correspondent for the African Defence Review, echoed these sentiments. “International comparisons are tricky both because not all countries accurately track the data and those that do often have varying criteria for what types of jobs are grouped into the category,” he explained.

Absolute number versus ratios

A security guard on duty outside a luxury Johannesburg hotel. Photo: AFP/Fabrice Coffrini
A security guard on duty outside a luxury Johannesburg hotel. Photo: AFP/Fabrice Coffrini" />

Despite these limitations, the Small Arms Survey’s 2011 study provides some interesting insights.

India is the country with largest private security industry. Seven million people are employed by security companies there. China comes second with 5-million, Russia next with 800,000 and then Brazil (570,000), Japan (459,305) and Mexico (450,000). South Africa is seventh on the list with 387,273 security personnel in 2011. (PSIRA’s latest annual report shows that the figure now stands at 487,058.)

But Olivier told Africa Check that absolute numbers were not useful for comparative purposes because they reveal little about the impact on the country. “[For example] one-million private security guards in India [would be] nothing. The same number in Swaziland would be notable. So ratios...are probably the only useful method of comparison,” he explained.

Comparing numbers of security guards to police

The 2011 Small Arms Survey provides ratios for the number of private security personnel per 100,000 people in the country and the number of private security personnel compared to police.

In relation to South Africa’s population, there were 806 private security personnel for every 100,000 people. This placed it fourth in the rankings behind Guatemala (944), Panama (928) and Honduras (870). This ratio takes a country’s population size into account and allows private security industries to be fairly compared.

The rankings showed that South Africa had 2.57 private security personnel for every police employee. This placed South Africa in fourth place behind Guatemala (6.01), India (4.98) and Honduras (4.88).

Olivier believes this is the most useful measure of a country’s security industry: “ [it] determines to what extent a country's security is in the hands of private security as opposed to state security forces”.

Conclusion – The claim is false

Both Mthethwa and Phiyega failed to provide evidence to support their claims. While South Africa certainly has one of the largest private security industries in the world, the most comprehensive survey to date of of the global private security industry does not support the claim.

South Africa employs more private security personnel than police. But it doesn’t top any of the international rankings when it comes to the size of its private security industry. In both absolute numbers and ratios other countries fare much higher.

Edited by Julian Rademeyer

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