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Nyar, Annsilla  (2006) Security guards: the bigger picture . The Mercury : -.

It is important that a critical perspective is maintained on the strike action and what it means for the country as a whole, writes

The strike action by security guards has brought the issue of one of the most highly exploitative industries in South Africa to the top of the national agenda.

How we choose to interpret it is another matter altogether. It is easy to focus only on the violence and the lawlessness and lose the bigger picture.

This may well be an opportune time to examine the private security industry as an instrument of social control in terms of the ongoing political, social and economic changes in South African society at large.

The strike demands have centered on wage increases of between 4% and 11% for these underpaid and exploited workers, as well as better working conditions. The latter includes maternity leave for security guards, the right to lunch breaks and the right to take a toilet break without being charged for deserting a post while on duty.

There has been high-profile media coverage of the incidents of criminal activity, which have figured prominently in this strike action.

The violence has been widespread and featured in different parts of the country, particularly in city centres where marches took place.

Security guards were implicated in the murders of six men who were thrown from a train in Benoni on the East Rand. It was suspected that scab labour was being targeted. Cars were set alight in Pretoria. In the Western Cape there were reports of damage to property and attacks on staff at Groote Schuur Hospital. In KwaZulu-Natal, city authorities claimed that security guards were reportedly responsible for the burning of 59 buses in Umlazi, a claim disputed by Satawu.

The Labour Department building in Durban's city centre suffered damage and vandalism as the anger of marchers ran high.

It is difficult not to feel appalled and alienated by the violence and criminality accompanying the strike action. But it is important that a critical perspective is maintained on the strike action, and what it means for the country as a whole.

The phenomenon of the security guard is a byproduct of the skewed and inequitable nature of a crime-obsessed society. When crime leaked over and then spilled from the townships to the more affluent suburbs and zones in the early 1990s, it fuelled the public hysteria that drove the development of the private security industry. Despite the fact that the private security industry has been such a prominent feature of South African life, particularly since the 1990s when crime levels peaked, it has never really been subject to much rigorous and critical scrutiny. It is a boom industry.

Turnover for the industry is said to be about R14 billion a year. The turnover per guard is said to be about R49 000.

It has enjoyed phenomenal and unprecedented growth rates, particularly so at a time when most businesses have stagnated.

According to the Institute for Security Studies, there are nearly 500 registered security companies and an estimated 280 000 registered and trained private security guards in South Africa - a figure which outnumbers the capacity of the police force.

Research from the Centre for Violence and Reconciliation estimates that private security guards outnumber the public police by about two to one. Society has come to view security guards as a dispensable unit of labour and a means of maintaining the "natural" equilibrium of life in South Africa.

It may well do to remember that the phenomenon of armed guards, alarms, panic buttons and detection devices are symptomatic of an "unnatural" society. It reflects the high levels of fear and paranoia we feel toward each other as people stay locked in their heavily-fortified suburban enclaves behind high walls and electric fences.

It also reflects the gross injustices and inequalities whereby wealthier parts of society can contract out their safety to private security. Often this private security takes the form of an unarmed and largely untrained, poorly educated man minus any link to an armed control centre who is paid the bare minimum wage of R1 500 which is prescribed by labour laws. It is dangerous and often trauma-inducing work.

Security guards are often first on the scene long before the police arrive, particularly so in the case of armed robberies and other violent crimes. More so, it is incredibly boring and unstimulating work - the drudgery that we know can be pushed on to someone else - because there is always someone else who desperately needs the work.

Usually that person is poor and black.

It is also usually the same person who can be negotiated with to serve as a casual guard. Given the high levels of unemployment, these men can be found doing 24-hour guard duty in front of suburban homes, for minimal wages and minus any security industry skills or training.

Critics of the strike action are quite right to condemn the violence and hold Satawu accountable for the damage and mayhem. But it doesn't detract from the fact that we are witnessing something very much in keeping with the inequitable, dysfunctional society which produced the phenomenon of the security guard in the first place.

Violence is a way of life in South Africa. We have grown up cheek by jowl with violence as a legitimate means with which to express ourselves, to defend ourselves and solve our problems. Without access to education, there is little possibility for learning that violence is not an acceptable resolution to problems.

The strike action has exposed real problems and contradictions in our analysis of the supposedly new socio- political terrain at the end of apartheid. What we are seeing is a system slowly disintegrating at the seams, with the cracks and fissures becoming ever more apparent. Our mental health professionals are trying to hold back a tide. This is the ugly reality.

For many of us, our view of society has been sanitised into a misguided belief that everything is working out as it should, perhaps through successive viewings of beer ads or soapies like Generations or Isidingo, which depict amazing racial harmony and economic empowerment for black people. For the majority of our population, there has not been much light at the end of the post apartheid tunnel.

This is a critical wake up call to the realities happening around us, but only if we choose to see it as so.

Annsilla Nyar is a research fellow at the Centre for Civil Society

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