South Africa: Security Guards Are Essential but Remain Exploited


The plight of men and women working in South Africa's private security sector is worsened by low pay, dangerous conditions and manipulation by superiors.

Edmond Patrick Ndlovu, 40, is a father of three from Giyani, Limpopo. About two decades ago, he moved, without his family, to seek better opportunities. He currently lives in Langlaagte, south of Johannesburg, in a rented room.

The walls in his room tell a story. They have turned mustard with splashes of brown and orange; the landlord hasn't renovated it for years. Opposite his bed is a chair with its backrest broken off. It serves as a table where he puts his two-plate stove to cook lunch he will eat at Park Station, where he works as a patrol security officer in the employ of Royal Security.

The walls also depict Ndlovu's ethos. He is a religious, union and family man. Two pictures of Edward Lekganyane, the former leader of the Zion Christian Church, hang on the wall. "When I have these pictures, I feel safe and protected," Ndlovu says. A calendar of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu), with which he is affiliated, is captioned: "Reclaim, renew and unite for working class power, back to basics!" And there's a photograph of his children bearing the boldly written caption: "I love you."

Long, exhausting shifts

Ndlovu wakes at 3am each day he is working a day shift, to cook his lunch. "I pray to God to keep me alive because anything could happen. If you work with guns, your life is always in danger. I could leave the house alive, but could equally come back on a hearse in a coffin," Ndlovu says.

It's 4.15am. Outside, it is icy and windy. Ndlovu walks to Langlaagte train station, a kilometre from his place, with his housemate Emmanuel who works elsewhere.

Ndlovu has two options for trains to take if he is to get to work before the parade at 4.45am. He must be in time because it is where all the operation's business is announced. The 9001 train from Vereeniging normally arrives at 4.25am; the 9501 from Naledi arrives five minutes later.

But at 4:38am on this day Ndlovu is still at the station. He calls one of his colleagues who gets on the train before him to find out its whereabouts. "... The train is stuck at Dube Station in Soweto," the friend says. Ndlovu has no choice but to find alternative transport, at an extra cost, at least to make it in time before his 12-hour shift, which starts at 6am.

'No longer scared of dead people'

His job is also mentally challenging with its proximity to death. "A lot of people have died in front of me and I am no longer scared," he says. "Sometimes you find a train has dismembered a person's legs, or arms into two pieces and has crushed a skull," he says. "One of the latest accidents was a woman hit by a train at George Goch, around 5am. The train took her leg, arm and head."

Asked how he copes with handling such trauma, he giggles. "When I started, I used to be frightened by the sight of a dead person. I wouldn't sleep at night, but now I've adapted. Even if [the train] was to hit you now, yet it's lunch time, I'd continue to eat like there's nothing that's ever happened. I've programmed my mind that I've come here to work for my family, that's all."

The working hours and traumatic experiences aren't the only challenges Ndlovu faces in his job. "Some of my colleagues have been disarmed, shot at and stabbed while patrolling along the railway tracks where they monitor and protect exposed cables," Ndlovu says. "This is a very, very dangerous industry."

Insufficient salary

Ndlovu has a grade C certificate, an entry level qualification for security personnel. After the implementation of the National Minimum Wage Act, the department of labour issued a directive to the private security sector to pay security officers working in towns and cities, like Ndlovu, a monthly salary of R4 377 before statutory deductions, R4 981 for grade B officers and R5 558 for officers who hold a grade A certificate.

Ndlovu's salary is quickly used up. His rent is R1 000; he sends R2 000 home for his family, and allocates "not more than R500" to groceries. "I buy a 12.5kg of maize meal; cooking oil; sugar; 5kg of chicken portions which will last me a month, and maybe wors," he says.

The remaining money goes towards transport. He buys a monthly train ticket for R120, but because of the unreliable nature of the railways service, he must make sure he has spare cash for alternative transport. His financial predicament is not unique: thousands of security guards across the country experience the same thing.

'A lot of abuse and exploitation'

Lindiwe Promise Magwaza, 40, is a single parent of four at Mzimhlope in Soweto. She started working for Fidelity Security Group in 2013. Qualified as a grade B officer, she earns at a grade C rate, according to her payslip. She says she's not the only person in her company who earns less than what she's qualified for.

Magwaza has experienced "a lot of abuse and exploitation by managers and supervisors who use their powers even where it's not warranted. They forced me to work shifts that I can't, just because I want money. When I refused, I was threatened with retrenchment."

Magwaza can't work night shifts out of the fear of leaving her daughters alone and "because I am a sangoma, at night there are things that disturb me spiritually."

In response to questions probing threats allegedly made against Magwaza, her area manager Eric Glenvill says: "I'm not prepared to discuss anything with you as you have no right to ask me questions pertaining to confidential information. I will respect the agreement I have with my employee."

Magwaza says her site manager, Onyimechi Chikuri, allegedly accused her of being "demonic". Because of this, she was moved to another site, which represents more travel expenses for her. When questioned, Chikuri denied knowing Magwaza altogether and denied her allegations against him.

Only working for her children

Magwaza must continue working at this job because of her children. Although she doesn't rent property, she barely manages to survive with her salary because of financial demands. Her 24-year-old first-born is studying Information and Technology at Richfield Graduate Institute of Technology in central Johannesburg. Every month, Magwaza says the college deducts R1 140 for tuition. Then, she has to load her daughter's Rea Vaya card.

Magwaza also has to take care of maintaining the house and her other children. "My needs and those of my children do not match up with my salary," she says. "However, because I am a mother, I hustle to the best of my ability and I make things happen."

The likes of Ndlovu, Magwaza and close to half a million security officers across the country are overworked and underpaid as a result of a system that emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s.

During times of political upheaval, the apartheid government instructed the police to engage in political duties and muzzling unrests, even if it meant relinquishing traditional policing. This left a gap in the security sector, which the private security industry capitalised on.

When the country transitioned into democracy, the South African Police Service was entrusted with the responsibility to protect civilians. However, the gap still remained and mistrust between the police and civilians continued due to documented cases of abuse and corruption, leading to more and more people who have financial power resorting to employing private security providers for protection.

According to the latest report by the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSiRA), there are over 2.3 million registered security guards in South Africa. However, only 498 435 are employed by more than 9 000 security companies.

Over the last 17 years, the number of registered security businesses increased by 65%, leading to an increase of registered and employed guards by 167%. However, besides the fear of crime and increased private property, such an increase of employed officers is partly the result of cheap labour.

Impending negotiations

Previously, the security sector did not have its own industry-related bargaining council. On 21 June 2018, the National Bargaining Council for the Private Security Sector was registered to regulate and to finalise agreements on remuneration, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment in the security sector.

Between August and October, Satawu and eight other unions with seats in the bargaining council engaged the employers' associations, the South African Security Association and South Africa National Security Employers Association, to discuss salary adjustment and improved working conditions.

Some of the demands are an eight-hour shift, customisable medical cover and standardised starting salary of R7 500, R8 000 or R8 500 for a guard in possession of grade C, B or A certificates respectively. Instead, the employers offered an increase of 1.1%.

In a nutshell, this meant that security guards' salaries would increase by 23c per hour. "From the attitude so far, I can tell that the employers are not coming to the negotiation table with a sound mind," says Phillemon Bhembe, Satawu's security national coordinator. The unions rejected the offer as "an insult to workers."

During the last round of negotiations in early October, the employers' associations agreed to increase the salaries by 5% for a three-year period. Again, the unions rejected the settlement.

"This offer is pathetic, it is basically R218 increase per month. It does not even get to R7 500 to the last year of the wage increase. It'd still be roughly R5 000 and this is not an offer that workers have mandated us to do," Bhembe says.

Chris Laubscher, the employers' representative at the wage negotiations was quoted in a report by GroundUp, saying that employers were prepared to have one more round of negotiation in mid-October. "We have a mandate from our members. It is more than the 5% we have placed on the table. We are on record to say that we have room to manoeuvre but it depends on whether [the unions] can get to realistic numbers."

Security professionals and their management have reached deadlock and the issue is yet to be discussed at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). If the parties are not able to break this deadlock, the CCMA commissioner will grant the unions a certificate, allowing all the parties concerned to strike. In the meantime, Bhembe says: "We will be interacting with our constituency to give them proper feedback. We will be finding out how they feel about this offer and whether they will be prepared for a strike if the conciliation and mediation does not yield positive results."

Bhembe believes their demands are justifiable and are the only way through which working conditions of security guards could be improved. The futures of Ndlovu, Magwaza and close to half a million guards depend on these ongoing negotiations.

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