You're not above the law, Mr Armed Response


THIS Thursday morning, as the rest of Gauteng ground to a halt due to the taxi strike (I heard of one person who took five hours to get to a meeting), I was taking my morning walk around my suburb.

In winter, I work late and rise late so I can walk in the crisp early sunshine, grateful it’s safe to walk in this area. But this morning’s walk ended with me feeling decidedly unsafe.

Just before I turn downhill to head for home, I cross a small park in the middle of the suburb, one of the precious open public spaces that provide green lungs and recreational space for Joburg. To my irritation, I saw an armed response vehicle, belonging to one of the big international companies that provide the R45bn worth of security we South Africans buy annually, bump over the verge of the lawn and drive onto it.

Green spaces in this part of the Greater Metro are under threat from illegal behaviour. One small park nearby was deeply gouged by idiots performing wheelies; it took more than six months to recover. The large park a couple of kilometres from my home has dirt roads scored across it from cars that drive over the open grass to the trees, where they park and eat KFC, tossing the rubbish out the window. All our local parks are often littered with broken glass, a disincentive for parents to let their children play in them.

The thing is, parking on public open spaces is actually, truly illegal. In terms of the Joburg By-laws,

“No person may within a public open space –

(a)  except at times specified and on roads or pathways provided by the Council, drive, draw or propel any vehicle other than a bicycle;

(b)  drive, draw or propel a vehicle in excess of five kilometres per hour; or

(c)  park a vehicle in a public open space, except in designated area or other area where parking is otherwise permitted by the Council."

So call me a pedant, but it stinks when security companies break the rules in this fashion. Since I’ve noticed it happening a lot, I’ve started documenting it with my phone (legal in all public spaces except national keypoints).

Mr Armed Response did not like that one little bit. Peppering his comments freely with the F-word, he threatened me (when a large man in a bulletproof vest lunges towards you spitting expletives, a man who is ‘armed response’ so probably armed, it’s not very comfortable).

Do security companies think they’re above the law, even though these are ‘little’ laws (as, indeed, our police and metro already seem to believe, judging by where they park and speed and litter)? If that’s the case, we’re in trouble: there are “around 490,000 active private security officers in South Africa; working in armed response, cash-in-transit, and guarding. By comparison, SAPS employs 194,852 people and the SANDF’s total military force (excluding reserves) is 77,597,” according to Shaun Swingler.

The broken window principle

It’s the broken window principle, really: if we let powerful elements of our society get away with small things, it won’t be long before they think they’re entitled to break bigger and bigger laws.

Which is one reason why we are foolish to allow blocs like the taxi industry to get away with little things. This morning they did a huge thing; they broke this rule of the road:

No person shall wilfully or unnecessarily prevent, hinder or interrupt the free and proper passage of traffic on a public road.

I have a lot of sympathy with the industry; the finance deal they’ve been labouring under seems not only onerous and greedy, but also shockingly monopolistic. And I agree with those who point out that bunging up the works as they did worked: they have a deal, double quick.

But how they enforced their strike action has also deepened the resentment felt by other drivers and taxi passengers. I heard of several people who were turned back as they made their way to work in their own vehicles; I heard of taxi passengers intimidated and threatened.

But they know they can get away with it, because for decades now the taxi industry (which employs more than 600,000 people and transports upwards of 15 million people every day has been largely unregulated, and seems to have struck fear into the hearts of metro police.

Day in and day out they get away with a million ‘minor’ infringements of the law, overtaking in the emergency lanes, jumping robots, failing to stop at stop streets and much more. So when they want to protest, they can do what they like; instead of thinking of creative ways to drive the message home, they use a sledgehammer that inconveniences a whole city.

In the last twenty years, another behemoth has been in the making: the security industry. As long as we have an unreliable police force, there’ll be more and more money to be made from people’s fears of crime. I don’t want them to become another law unto themselves. So I will follow this up, petty though it seems to be. The combination of quick temper, easy aggression and weaponry seems rather worrying to me.

And I’d be interested to hear from others who’ve had experiences with armed response or other security services that make them uncomfortable or angry.

* Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

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