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Crime falls, but fear remains big business in South Africa

The city skyline seen from south of Johannesburg. There were almost 7,500 registered private security companies in South Africa in 2010, compared to about 4,600 in 2005.


In South Africa, fear is big business. And even though the crime rate is declining, the fear rate is rising -- which makes for a lucrative business opportunity for the security industry.

Since 2005, the number of registered private security companies in South Africa has soared by 61 per cent. And the number of companies specializing in "armed response" has jumped by 264 per cent, according to a new report by the South African Institute of Race Relations.

The security business has become a kind of parallel police force in South Africa, capitalizing on the climate of fear in the middle-class suburbs of its towns and cities.

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South Africa's murder rate has dropped by 52 per cent since the end of apartheid in 1994, but it remains one of the most crime-ridden countries in the world.

Four of its biggest cities, including Johannesburg and Cape Town, are among the 50 cities with the highest murder rates in the world. Home invasions and carjackings remain common.

In response, millions of South Africans have turned to security companies, especially the "armed response" companies that send armed guards rushing to your house within minutes of your alarm being triggered.

"Businesses and households show that they have adopted a hardened attitude towards crime by increasingly opting for armed response," said Kerwin Lebone, a researcher at the Institute of Race Relations.

"This means they are paying for security twice over – via tax to fund the police and again to purchase private security."

The institute says there were almost 7,500 registered private security companies in South Africa in 2010, compared to about 4,600 in 2005. The number specializing in armed response has grown from 743 to more than 2,700 in the same period.

One thinly populated province, Northern Cape, had just one registered security company in 2005. Five years later, it had 91 companies.

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And the number of registered security officers across South Africa has grown by 236 per cent in the same five-year period, while the number of police officers increased by 37 per cent.

The security industry is one of the few booming sectors of the South African economy these days. The economy is forecast to grow by 3.7 per cent this year, according to a United Nations report this week, but unemployment remains stubbornly high -- nearly 40 per cent by unofficial estimates.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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