JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – As night falls over a leafy Johannesburg suburb in South Africa, private security guards step into camouflage clothing and load their rifles, preparing to set about on a night patrol.
A commander briefs the men in the gym of the company’s headquarters, reviewing interventions that occurred during the previous 12-hour shift.
“No questions?” he asked the solemn line of guards before him, beret in hand. “Okay, let’s bow our heads and pray,” he said in local Xhosa language.
The men then pick up their arms and file into black-and-yellow painted pickup trucks branded with the company’s name ‘Cortac’ – one of South Africa’s leading private security services providers.
“Every morning I pray,” admitted Forget Ndlovu, 46, while his teammates boarded their vehicles.
“This job is dangerous, I never know if I will be able to go home,” he said.
But “we help others get a good life”, he added, noting that the job was significantly better paid than working for the police.
The Cortac vehicles set off into the pink evening light, driving in slow circles past electric gates and high walls topped with barbed wire to protect the plush homes of Johannesburg’s wealthy suburbs.
Joggers and security guards in narrow, wooden Wendy houses, built on properties for live-in domestic staff, waved as the pickups rolled past.
“The community is counting on us, not the police,” Ndlovu told AFP.
South Africa has one of the world’s largest private security industries, employing more personnel than the police, according to the national Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSIRA).
The sector creates work for more than two million people in a country where unemployment stands at more than 32 per cent.
To qualify for Cortac positions, applicants need a driver’s licence, firearm competency, and a clean criminal record.
Many are ex-soldiers and former cash-in-transit guards.
Ahead of each night patrol, guards are divided into groups of two or three per vehicle. Some also carry a dog.
“We only use the dog to go inside a house to find a suspect hiding,” said 25-year-old Ryan, who did not wish to give his full name.
Most nights are relatively uneventful for the private security teams.
There is usually a bit of a rush hour from around 5pm, when residents return from work and accidentally set off alarms, touching off a chorus of dog barks.
But it is better to be safe than sorry in South Africa’s crime-laden financial capital, where troubles have been worsened by the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Burglaries, assaults and car-jackings are a popular conversation topic among better-off locals, who seldom venture around the city on foot for fear of being mugged.
Neighbourhood WhatsApp gro-ups share daily messages on the latest break-ins and seemingly shady movements in the area.
“If people are loitering, clients call our control room to say, ‘Suspicious people are in front of my property, can you come check?'” Cortac agent Mabuya told AFP.
Inside their armoured vehicle, Mabuya and his colleague Mpengesi – who did not wish to give their full names – explain that patrol routes are randomly switched around “so as not to be predictable”.
“We wait when cars go into houses… to make sure the client is safe,” said Mpengesi, noting that burglars sometimes take advantage of slow-closing electric gates to hit.
“If we see an open gate, we will go inside and enquire,” he added.
Suddenly the conversation stops. Someone nearby has pressed their “panic button”, immediately alerting the Cortac control centre. The driver revs into gear and accelerates towards the distress call. But two blocks before their destination a voice blasts through the walkie-talkie. It’s a “false alarm”.
Twenty minutes later, the crew respond to another panic call, this time at a nearby shopping centre.
The driver parks a few metres from the entrance as Mpengesi and Mabuya break into a run, rifles in hand.
“Ladies, let’s get back inside, it’s not safe out here,” said a hairdresser, ushering his customers back into the salon. Minutes later, the men return. “A mistake.”
Later that evening, the call centre asks the team to check out a parked car, Black driver behind the wheel, flagged by a worried neighbour.
One of them walks over to investigate and simply finds an Uber driver waiting for customers, parked to save money on petrol. He is asked to leave because he is making people “nervous”.