Privatising Africa’s everyday security

and Michael C.

Industrial action by guards at the World Cup highlights the growing
prevalence of private firms in the provision of security across Africa

As clashes between striking
security guards and police threaten to disrupt not only the World Cup
but also to undermine South Africa’s carefully crafted presentation as a
safe place for tourists and international events, it is high time to
discuss the consequences of Africa’s massive privatization and
globalization of security.

Security was a key concern prior to the
World Cup, with South African and FIFA officials frequently reassuring
players and fans alike that they would be safe during the football
fest’s first staging on the African continent. Private security was a
key part of this strategy, with the South African firm Stallion Security
contracted to provide the lion’s share of basic security and crowd
control at the stadiums and their surrounding areas. Yet as of today,
security at four of the ten World Cup stadiums is in the hands of the
police. Outside the stadiums, the striking guards face stun grenades,
teargas and rubber bullets as they protest against having been promised
R500 (£45) a match – only to be paid R190 (£20) by Stallion.

it not for the labour dispute over low wages and the stun grenades and
the rubber bullets fired by the police, it is likely that few would have
noticed the pervasive presence of the humble private security guard.
Yet, the events surrounding the world’s largest sporting event help draw
attention to the increasing importance and impact of private security
in Africa. While much has been written in recent years about the
activities of mercenaries and private military companies on the
continent, the privatization of everyday security has gone largely
unnoticed. However, the fact is that across Africa (as in much of the
world) everyday security is increasingly in the hands of private
companies, and the uniformed guards of literally thousands of companies
have become a ubiquitous feature of daily life.

In many ways,
South Africa leads the way in security privatization. As a percentage of
GDP, the country has the largest private security sector in the world.
Currently, there are 6,392 registered and active private security
companies in the country, employing 375,315 active security officers.[1]
By comparison, the number of police officers is 190,000.[2]
In the nine years from 1997 to 2006, the number of security guards grew
by over 157%, while in the year from March 2008 to 2009, the number of
active guards increased by over 10 percent.

In other countries,
exact statistics are harder to come by, but in Nigeria there are between
1,500 to 2,000 private security companies (PSCs), and in Kenya some
2,000 companies employ approximately 48,000 people. Given Kenya’s high
dependency ratios, this means that the industry supports indirectly a
total of 195,524 people.[3]
In Angola, there are at least 300 PSCs with about 35,000 staff, in
Uganda, the number of private guards equals that of police officers, and
in many other African countries private security is one of few sectors
of employment growth and expansion.[4]
In Sierra Leone, for example, there were only two private security
companies before the civil war; today, there are at least twenty.

security is not only becoming increasingly privatized, it is also
increasingly globalized. As Africa’s security market is expanding, it
has become the target of foreign companies seeing to expand their
presence in so-called emerging markets, where profits are higher and
wages lower. First among these companies is Group4Securicor, the
world’s largest security company. With nearly 600,000 employees, G4S is
the biggest employer listed on the London Stock Exchange. According to
some calculations, it is also the largest private employer in Africa.
The security giant is now present in 29 African countries, employing
over 115,000 people from Cape to Cairo, from isolated resource enclaves
to sophisticated city streets. Securitas, the world’s second largest
private security company, has recently expanded into Africa, acquiring
companies in South Africa and Morocco. Companies like ADT and Chubb are
other key players on the continent, particularly in South Africa’s
lucrative armed response market, whereas companies like Control Risk and
Kroll are increasingly found wherever international capital has a

The presence of international security companies in
Africa, and the rest of the developing world for that matter, is likely
to continue to expand. Profit and growth rates in emerging markets are
significantly higher than in North America and Europe. As a result, the
major companies like G4S and Securitas are pursuing aggressive global
expansion strategies. By 2015 it is estimated that emerging markets will
account for 35 percent of a global private security market forecast to
be worth some $230 billion.[5]

it lacks the spectacular qualities of mercenaries and private military
companies, this quiet transformation of Africa’s everyday security
landscape has potentially wide-ranging consequences. Outsourcing
everyday security may be as significant as the outsourcing of war. It
raises crucial questions, about how the prevalence of private security
affects public security, how the ability to pay affects who has access
to security, and about the accountability and responsibility of private

The emergence of a global market for everyday security
reflects more than the much-discussed ‘weakness’ of the African state,
its often insufficient and/or predatory police forces, and its failure
to provide the preeminent public good of security. The global reach of
private security companies requires the prior commodification of
security, and the existence of a global market reflects the extent to
which security has become delinked from public and political visions and
rendered instead a commodity or ‘service like any other’ that can be
traded in a global market place. Thus, when a South African
parliamentary committee on safety and security a few years ago sought to
prevent foreign ownership in its private security sector, this was
quickly overruled by the then Minister of Finance on the grounds that it
would damage the country’s reputation as a place where international
capital was free to operate.

Almost by definition, private
security is only available to those who can pay, and as such can serve
to cement and reproduce existing inequalities between rich and poor. The
emergence of gated communities and fortress cities is the most visible
expression of this. However, more difficult questions arise from the
substantial integration of the public and the private, the global and
the local.[6]
In line with the growing impact of neo-liberal forms of governance,
outsourcing, and New Public Management strategies, the past decade has
witnessed a proliferation of public-private partnerships, where public
and private security actors work together in the provision and
governance of security. This integration of private actors into public
security structures and operations blurs the lines between the public
and the private- and hence also the lines of accountability and
responsibility. Through such partnerships, private actors may gain
significant influence over security, how it is provided, what (and who)
are defined as security threats, what security technologies are
employed, etc, etc. Private logics can thus become lodged within public
institutions, again making the public/private distinction more
difficult to draw, while simultaneously awarding private actors a prime
location from where to advocate for the further privatization of
security. In this sense, private security actors are both cause and
effect of the rise in private security, as their own profitability
depends to a significant extent on a pervasive feeling of fear and

At the same time, according to many official accounts,
the privatization of security is in the interest of the public good: by
privatizing aspects of security, the police can get on with the more
important and urgent tasks. The argument cannot be dismissed out of
hand, particularly in ‘weak’ African states, where public resources for
security are not only insufficient, but where the security apparatus of
the state is a often major source of public insecurity, praying on the
population in terms of violence, intimidation and petty corruption. In
such settings, it is not surprising that those who can turn to private
solutions, nor is it entirely inconceivable that private provision might
allow the public to concentrate its meagre resources on the most
pressing tasks. On this logic, for example, the protection of South
Africa’s public police stations is outsourced to private security
companies, leaving higher paid and better trained police officers to
perform more important tasks than static guarding. The question remains,
however, if the logic of neo-liberalism and privatization is (further)
eroding the broader notions of the public good and citizens’ sense of
collective belonging, mutual respect and responsibility.

What is
beyond doubt is that private security is a notoriously poorly paid
occupation. The situation extends far beyond South Africa and the World
Cup. For several years, G4S was the target of a global campaign by the
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Geneva-based Union
Network International (UNI), a federation of more than 900 unions in the
service sector, to allow union rights and improve wages and working
conditions for G4S employees. The campaign led to the formation of the
‘Alliance for Justice at Group4Securicor’ and brought together workers
at G4S and their unions across the globe in a demand for living wages,
social protection and freedom to organize.[7]
Finally, in 2008, the company signed a global agreement with UNI
Property Services, stating that all G4S employees, in over 100
countries, have the right to organize unions and that G4S will follow
international and national labour laws in its relations with workers.[8]
Nonetheless, across the African continent and in other developing
countries, poorly paid guards are increasingly the frontline of
security, guarding the wealth of the few. Only on occasions like the
World Cup do they have the attention of the world, and only then because
of their ability to disrupt our enjoyment.


[1] Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (2007)
Annual report 2008/2009 and Annual report 2006/2007. Pretoria: Private
Security Industry Regulatory Authority;

‘Government assures World Cup visitors of safety’, 10 June 2010, Times

[3] Patrick Keku and Tunde Akinbade
(2003) Industrial security in Nigeria . Lagos: Authorhouse; F. Wairagu,
J. Kamenju and M. Singo (2004) Private security in Kenya. Nairobi:
Security Research and Information Centre, p.45.

Lisa Rimli and Susanne Schmeidle (2007) ‘Private security companies and
local populations. An exploratory study of Afghanistan and Angola’.
Swiss Peace; Rita Abrahamsen and Michael C. Williams (2006) ‘Security
sector reform: Bringing the private in’, Conflict, Security and
Development 6(1):1-23.

[5] Securitas (2007)
Annual report 2007, p.13.

[6] For further
analysis, see Rita Abrahamsen and Michael C. Williams ‘Security Beyond
the State: Private Security in International Politics’ (Cambridge
University Press, forthcoming November 2010)

Documents relating to the campaign can be found at the UNI Global Union

[8] UNI Global Union, ‘G4S & UNI sign global
agreement’, 16 December, 2008 (