Private security industry under fire

2015-03-29 15:00

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The sector is expanding in SA, but a new bill could change the way things are run, writes Ruth Hopkins

During a meeting at Wits University recently about the new Private Security Industry Regulation Amendment Bill, security experts were divided on how security guards could be held accountable for human rights violations.

The speakers dealt mainly with the hotly contested foreign-ownership clause in the bill, which stipulates that 51% of foreign-owned private security firms have to be in South African hands.

Lack of regulation and monitoring, poor compliance with codes of conduct, criminality within the sector, misuse of firearms and other worrying issues were only mentioned in passing.

In South Africa, the industry is mushrooming; there are about 450?000 private security guards, nearly twice the number of police officers and soldiers combined. Increasingly, private security guards are involved in maintaining and upholding the criminal justice system.

The biggest security provider in the world, G4S, for example, employs about 16?000 people in South Africa. One of its main operations is a private prison in Bloemfontein.

In 2013, the Wits Justice Project revealed that G4S wardens were allegedly electroshocking inmates routinely, forcibly injecting them with antipsychotic drugs and holding them in isolation cells for up to four years. The department of correctional services announced an investigation into the allegations in November 2013, but their report is yet to be released. G4S has not dismissed or suspended any of its staff.

The security behemoth, which claims to be Africa’s biggest private employer, has also run into problems overseas. It has been heavily criticised for providing security to Israel in the occupied territories in Palestine, its involvement in the controversial American detention centre Guantanamo Bay and its activities in Afghanistan and Iraq. Guards in the UK and Australia have been accused of racism, abuse and maltreatment of people in their care, some of whom died as a result of inappropriate use of force.

Amichand Soman, the director of the Civilian Secretariat for Police, said at the meeting: “The bill stipulates that the private security industry must be trustworthy and legitimate, and must operate in accordance with the principles contained in the Constitution.”

The bill – which was adopted by Parliament and now awaits President Jacob Zuma’s signature – envisages the establishment of a council comprised of members with no links to the industry. The council will oversee the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (Psira) and will be accountable to the minister of police, who in turn can take “corrective measures”.

Manabela Chauke, the director of Psira, indicated the authority was unaware of the allegations of human rights violations that had taken place at the Bloemfontein prison.

“We have in place a code of conduct that governs security service providers in the country, and it was drafted around provisions of the Constitution, mainly to protect the rights of members of the public. If there is any violation, we deal with it,” he said.

Psira, however, was unable to confirm or deny if it had addressed the situation at the prison.

Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko, who spoke at the event, was not convinced Psira was the right avenue.

“I don’t think you will get a definite answer. The best advice I can give is that such allegations must actually be taken up with the Human Rights Commission for further investigation, because these are pretty serious matters.”

While G4S and other foreign-owned security companies might not be held accountable for human rights violations in South Africa, their presence in the country will be drastically reduced by the bill. After the president has signed it and its provisions have been implemented, the company will have to divest of 51% of its shares, most probably not at market value, as the divestment would not be the result of a business strategy.

The reason for introducing the expropriation clause, according to Nhleko, is the threat private security providers pose to national security. However, neither the minister nor other speakers could quite explain how.

“The private-security industry is growing exponentially. This industry gathers intelligence and this can compromise national security,” said Nhleko.

According to Costa Diavastos, executive committee member of the Security Industry Alliance and former human resources director for G4S SA, the security industry is predominantly South African. “Only 10% of the security industry is foreign owned.”

The implementation of the law is expected to take about 18 months.

Hopkins is a journalist with the Wits Justice Project

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