Privatising Africa's everyday security

Industrial action by guards at the World Cup highlights the growing prevalence of private firms in the provision of security across Africa
Rita Abrahamsen
1 July 2010

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.

Were 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.

Everyday 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 foothold.

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]

Although 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 actors.

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 insecurity.

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;

[2] ‘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.

[4] 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)

[7] Documents relating to the campaign can be found at the UNI Global Union website:

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

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData