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Friday, 12 April, 2002, 14:12 GMT 15:12 UK
Crime wave feeds SA security boom
South African police officers
Police have a better image but are spread too thinly
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By the BBC's Carolyn Dempster

"You get the situation where no matter how hard you work, and no matter what you do, you can never stop the crime," says a demoralised captain in South Africa's Police Service.

In some ways, say criminologists, it's true.

South Africa probably never will be able to "stop the crime" completely.

A policeman and his dog attack a suspected illegal immigrant in 1998
The police were seen as a potentially malevolent force
Bringing it under control remains one of the toughest challenges facing government. Good policing is key to the struggle.

In the meantime, the private security business is booming.

Death penalty abolished

During the apartheid era, for every 10 policeman on the streets, one was fighting crime. The rest were enforcing apartheid laws.

In 1994 that all changed. With democratic rule, an authoritarian repressive regime gave way almost overnight to a human rights-based system.

The death penalty was abolished. Criminals had rights they had never enjoyed before.

Police had to produce evidence of a crime, instead of beating a confession out of a suspect to secure a conviction.

Prosecutors were bound to argue convincingly why bail should be denied, not granted.

I'm prepared to pay for peace of mind

Bill Alexander
All of this happened against a backdrop of a police service riddled with racism, a command structure populated with officers loyal to a white political elite, and a legion of low-paid black recruits.

For at least the first three years the democratic government regarded the police as a potentially malevolent force.

"It was seen as a risk to be tamed, rather than an instrument to be used," says Johnny Steinberg, a senior crime consultant at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

The lack of public confidence in the police, low pay, and problems with racial integration contributed to low morale and corruption.

Organised crime syndicates found fertile ground in this state of flux, and violent crime flourished in the first few years of the new democracy.

It was quickly evident that the new government did not have the resources, the capacity, or the manpower to respond to the crime wave that engulfed South Africa.

Feeling fearful and helpless, ordinary South Africans have resorted to their own measures for protection.

  Click here to see international murder rates compared

Some communities have resorted to vigilantism.

For wealthy South Africans, of all ethnic groups, the answer lies in private security.

Today it is a 13bn rand ($1.3bn) business, with more than 200,000 security guards employed by over 5,000 private security firms.

It means that for every police officer in South Africa there are 2 private security guards - usually better paid, but without the same powers of search, arrest and seizure.

'Grudge buy'

In addition, there are another 300,000 private security guards registered, but not currently operative - one indicator of the growth in the sector.

Private security is seen by most affluent South Africans as a "grudge buy", a purchase they would rather not have to make.

Many feel they have no option.

Bill and Jill Alexander live near the Jukskei River on the outskirts of Johannesburg. It would be an ideal recreation area were it not for the fact that the river has been fenced off to prevent criminals from striking at will.

Johannesburg street
Police cannot provide enough protection
Access to the area is now controlled by a guard at a gate operating a boom and screening all cars and pedestrians coming in and out of the suburb.

The Alexanders' experience of crime led them to buy into the concept of a sealed suburb, electric fencing around their property and a 24-hour armed response guard.

In 20 years, the Alexanders have been burgled 16 times, twice while the family was actually in the house, and in one particularly bad period in 1996, three times in the space of three months.

But the protection comes at a cost. Apart from the initial outlay of some 6,500 rand ($600) to electrify the fence around his property, Bill Alexander pays a monthly fee of 500 rand ($50) to the security company that operates the control boom and armed response unit.

He thinks it is a worthwhile investment: "South Africa is a society in transition and it will take a while for the government to crack this crime problem.

Prepared to pay

"The police should be able to provide protection for all but, for now, I'm prepared to pay for peace of mind."

Buying peace of mind has become a highly profitable business.

In 1998, when official crime statistics suggested that the murder rate had dropped, and many categories of crime were beginning to stabilise, Dave Albert started a small private security firm in northern Johannesburg.

His Special Armed Services (SAS) has seen a dramatic increase in its client base, reflecting the public perception that the police are still not providing the protection society requires.

Mr Albert is mindful of the need for crime prevention.

"If the alarms are going off, then we've already lost half the battle," he says.

He suggests a partnership between private security firms and the police as the only practicable way forward in the ongoing fight against crime.

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See also:

29 Nov 01 | Africa
SA police jailed for dog attacks
18 Sep 00 | Africa
SA: Row over freed convicts
12 Oct 00 | Africa
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