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Private Security in South Africa and its Challenges for Human Rights


Where formal state institutions have failed to protect citizens, those who can afford it have turned to private security. In South Africa, there has been a surge in private homeowners, shopkeepers and businesses employing private security guards in order to fill the gap left by state police and law enforcement agencies[2]. In late September of 2022 a video showing a young man being beaten by private security agents at a supermarket in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province went viral on South African Twitter[3]. The man, at the end of the video, can be seen beaten and bloody in the face. On the floor lie two jars, rolling back and forth amongst the brutality of the video: in them is peanut butter. In the South African landscape, this case is not an isolated incident. Cases such as this one raise a number of key questions: in particular, whether in the instance of violation of laws, private security ought to be employed at all when their use of excessive violence seems to go unchecked. The broader literature has addressed both more generally within global security discourse, most explicitly considering the increasingly visible presence of the Russian private military corporation Wagner Group, but also considering what sorts of roles private security companies should play in home invasions, nightclub and concert security, and on university campuses. While there has been a wide range of coverage on the security threats that South Africa is facing externally, there has not been a huge amount of research into the dangers of private security companies globally or in South Africa[4].

Andy Bearpark and Sabrina Schulz, in a chapter published for the Institute for Security Studies, attempt to distinguish between the benefits and risks of private security companies as implemented in South Africa. They introduce their discussion as follows:

On the one hand, private security companies (PSCs) have the potential to improve the security situation for people where the state fails to live up to its duties. This is if PSCs deliver their services in a professional and accountable manner. On the other hand, in the absence of professional standards, their activities may aggravate an existing security situation through leaving the underlying causes of insecurity unresolved[5].

The absence of standard rule of law in cases of human rights violations as done by private security officers thus not only all too often goes unaddressed, but may worsen situations. While the incident surrounding theft from a shop may seem isolated, the number of private security companies hired and paid for by private businesses and people appears on the rise, particularly in South Africa. Jenny Irish, writing in 1999 a report on the impacts of private security companies presents the statistics. In 1999 around 200 000 security guards were employed in the private security industry in South Africa, and the number of existing private security firms totalled 3200[6]. By 2021, PSIRA, the Private Security Regulatory Authority, estimated that the private security industry employed over 2.4 million security guards across the board in South Africa[7]. It becomes increasingly important, in such a context, to understand the impact of 2.4 million people enforcing law privately. Worldwide, the private security sector is said to be increasing at between 7 and 8 percent annually, and employs more than 20 million people[8].

PSIRA: the national regulatory body, its capabilities, and its limitations

PSIRA, the Private Security Regulatory Authority, is the legislated body in charge of regulating the seemingly ever-growing private security industry in South Africa[9]. John Kole, in investigating the extent to which PSIRA does perform this duty effectively, spoke to a number of private security providers: while the majority are aware of PSIRA’s existence, few have encountered PSIRA officials at their workplaces, and even less have experienced a regulatory check for general compliance of their companies to the regulations PSIRA itself sets[10]. Kole elucidates this further. The PSIRA Act of 2001 gives the body the authority to ensure that private security companies are maintaining appropriate standards. These include: paying their employees appropriately; keeping all official companies on a formal database (thereby ensuring it is possible to keep track of all of them officially); penalisations enforced for those firms that do not abide by the official code of conduct[11]. The history of PSIRA and of private security more generally is rooted in the apartheid era. Private security companies were introduced into the South African security and law enforcement landscape in the 1970s in order to allow the state to focus on the national political crisis[12]. The enforcement of the law by private security firms, as mandated by South Africa’s first democratic constitution in 1996, ought to be regulated by state bodies. This brought about the creation of PSIRA in democratic South Africa[13]. The PSIRA report of 2016 argues that there is a necessity for growing regulation by an institutionally recognised body of the manner in which the private security, particularly in cases of burglary, have taken on the role originally assigned to the police. State police in South Africa have left a substantial gap in the implementation of efficient and substantial law enforcement, and South African citizens have filled this gap by hiring private security. Communities who have the financial means to bring in private security do so, and the 2016 PSIRA report hopes to address the ways in which private security companies are or are not meeting the standards of professionalism that are required.

Security in nightlife

Cape Town’s nightlife, as in most cities, is spread across the whole city, but finds its hub along the three or four parallel streets of Cape Town’s CBD. Long Street is the most notable of these streets and receives an honourable mention of some sort in most guidebooks for Cape Town. One of the oldest streets in the city, Long Street is lined with buildings dating back to the 1800s and runs through almost 20 blocks of Cape Town’s inner city. The oldest buildings still have wrought iron balconies with coverings and are only about two to three stories high. One of these buildings is advertised loudly: the balcony is painted a bright yellow, against a green building and huge lettering says: ‘25 TAPS & 99 BOTTLES.’ Advertised as the place to go for beer-lovers, Beerhouse is well-known on Long Street. Although not visible to the eye when walking up Long Street, businesses along the straight road pay protection fees to a mafia of private security firms in an organised crime enterprise that has been active for over two decades[14]. Randolf Jorberg, the owner of Beerhouse, has repeatedly refused to pay protection fees and hired his own choice of private security instead[15]. In late June of 2015, nearing eleven at night, Joe-Louis Kanyona, one of the private security employees at Beerhouse, was stabbed in the neck by a group of men. Kanyona died halfway up the bar’s stairs, whilst attempting to reach his brother[16]. Other bars along Long Street have faced similar threats, but have paid for the use of a private security firm not found on official registration lists of PRISA: Specialised Protection Services (SPS)[17]. The company, SPS, was shut down in 2012 but has continued to maintain a presence in central Cape Town. By 2012, prior to its closing, SPS provided private security to just under 200 businesses in Cape Town and employed around 400 people[18]. Like Joe-Louis Kanyona, a large number of these people emigrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after serving in the Congolese military, providing them with experience preferred by employers in Cape Town. Working in central Cape Town’s nightlife is dangerous business, even when involved in highly regulated private security contexts. Unregulated law enforcement as carried out by private security companies and their employees may lead to unchecked violence and human rights abuses. While it is essential to focus on the rights that are violated by those working in private security, as in the case described in this article’s introduction, it is salient, too, to shed some light on what the impact may be for the rights of the people working in private security companies in the context of organised crime and violent nightlife in particular. The answer seems somewhere between enforcing more stringent legislation and combining the frameworks of private and public law enforcement in the South African context[19].

‘Surveillance of the Surveillers’: Regulation authorities, human rights protection, and private security

The truth seems, then, that the private security industry in South Africa is marred with human rights violations on all sides: for those who it employs and those who it supposedly protects. Tessa Diphoorn discusses the ways in which regulatory bodies in charge of maintaining best practice in the private security industry have themselves become a form of security enforcement[20]. In becoming responsible for the enforcement of rules and regulations that private security companies ought to stick to, they become involved in what Diphoorn refers to as the ‘surveillance of the surveillers.’[21] She continues by establishing the various dilemmas this can entail[22]. Outside of the private security discourse, regulation has become a constituent part of neoliberal conceptions of the modern state. While reliant on formal state apparatus, the literature has documented well the growing ‘web’ that has been established between public and private institutions and bodies that regulate one another within this webbed network[23]. Within this network, Diphoorn argues that the state plays a fundamental role: it ‘steers’ rather than doing such regulatory jobs itself, it delegates or directs rather than does[24]. The extent, then, to which the state remains in charge of private security officials is a factor that ought to be discussed. This is particularly important when security discourse remains tied to a particular conception of the modern sovereign state. While run through the channels of the formal apparatus of the sovereign state, private security that exists independent of state institutions presents a risk to the human rights of those the industry employs, aims to protect, and those against which they enforce the law.


2. Asala, 2021: unpaginated.

3. Ngema, 2022: unpaginated.

4. See, for example: Taljaard, ‘Private and Public Security in South Africa’, 69.

5. Bearpark and Schulz, 2007: unpaginated.

6. Jenny Irish, 1999: 2.

8. Diphoorn, 2016: 162.

9. Kole, 2010: abstract.

10. Kole, 2010: abstract.

11. Kole, 2010: abstract.

12. Gichanga, ‘PSIRA Training Standards Report March 2016’, 5.

13. Gichanga, ‘PSIRA Training Standards Report March 2016’, 5.

14. De Greef, 2015: unpaginated.

15. De Greef, 2015: unpaginated.

16. De Greef, 2015: unpaginated.

17. De Greef, 2015: unpaginated.

18. De Greef, 2015: unpaginated.

19. Berg, 2003, abstract.

20. Diphoorn, 2016: 161.

21. Diphoorn, 2016: 161.

22. Diphoorn, 2016: 161.

23. Diphoorn, 2016: 163.

24. Diphoorn, 2016: 163.


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