Armed robbery of Johannesburg bankers spurs security guard boom

Repair work on one of Johannesburg’s major highways has had an unexpected impact on South Africa’s major banks.

Lenders are stepping up security after the closure of parts of the M2 freeway diverted traffic through the central business district - already flooded with pedestrians, buses, street vendors and minibus taxis.

In a city that’s no stranger to crime, the snarl-ups made bank workers sitting ducks as thieves struck one car after the next, stealing whatever they can at gunpoint.

To combat the thugs taking advantage of the gridlock, businesses are meeting weekly with city officials and metropolitan police who direct traffic and monitor crime hotspots.

Undercover cops are also keeping watch, while the likes of Absa and First National Bank provide shuttle services for staff, let employees work from home, come in during off-peak times or use satellite offices.

"Our ops center reports regularly on the situation just to check it’s business as usual," Absa’s acting chief executive officer, Rene van Wyk, said. When the lender put more security in place, perpetrators would move further along, looking for weak spots, he said.

Armed guards

Guards armed with two-way radios and nightsticks now dot street corners and bridge crossings as far as 3 kilometres away from where the highway runs just south of the city center.

Some are clothed in Absa’s trademark red logo, while others stand watch in bright yellow or orange vests from other companies, including around Standard Bank's offices.

The city center - which also houses provincial government offices, universities, historical landmarks and the African National Congress’s head office - is also the scene of regular protests.

"Unfortunately, now and then, there are incidents of crime which our staff are not immune against," said FNB CEO Jacques Celliers, whose firm has about 12 000 staff at its Bank City headquarters.

"We have approximately 100 guards around our campus, and also partner with authorities to improve general safety, especially when there’s traffic congestion."

CBD exit

The banks are among a handful of companies like AngloGold Ashanti to have stayed in the central business district. Other corporations have moved north to plush buildings in suburbs like Sandton, known as Africa’s richest square mile, Illovo or Midrand.

"Being in Joburg CBD keeps us in close proximity to matters that the general public are passionate and concerned about,” said Celliers. “It’s not unbearable."

Crime is down "significantly" to levels lower than before the highway was closed at the end of February because of the increased policing and improved traffic flow, said Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department spokesman Wayne Minnaar, without being able to be more specific.

Johannesburg central police station has highest reported cases of aggravated robbery in the country, at almost 2 000 incidents in the year through March 2018, according to government data.

The South African Police Service declined to provide the latest statistics for the precinct. The work is expected to be completed in October, the Johannesburg Roads Agency’s Siyabonga Genu said.

City officials and businesses are also looking into the use of drones to police the areas as a longer-term solution, Absa spokesman Songezo Zibi said.

"Since stepping up our safety measures, we’ve seen a big decline in the number of incidents from several a week to only isolated ones now," he said outside the lender’s headquarters, where building is underway on a residential, commercial and retail development.

"Things have settled down."

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