The Dangers of Private Policing: Lessons from South Africa

defund police protest

The recent physical assault of French music producer Michel Zecler makes one thing clear: police brutality is a transnational issue. This year, incidents of police brutality and racial discrimination were met with fierce public outcry across the globe. In Great Britain, France, and Germany, tens of thousands of protesters marched against police violence.[1] Yet the United States saw the greatest unrest, with between 15 and 26 million Americans participating in the summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations — the largest protests in the history of the country.[2] These protesters demanded systemic police reform to rectify the ubiquitous instances of police brutality and racial discrimination. And with this activism arose a novel demand: police abolition.[3]

In the United States, protesters demanded that local governments strip police forces of their vast financial resources and redistribute services to other responders. Yet this call misses another insidious possibility: issues such as brutality and racial discrimination reappearing in private police forces. Although private security forces are not referred to as “private police” in the United States, elsewhere, they are often referred to by this alarming moniker. How does a country ensure proper safeguards against outsourced security developing the same plights as the police force? Despite private security officers’ large ranks in the United States, they are not always conspicuous. While the United States boasts over two private security officers for every police officer[4], this ratio has grown even more disproportionate in other countries. One relevant case study for this phenomenon rests in South Africa — a country where there are nearly four private security officers for every one public police officer. In South Africa, private personnel filled a gap when the country was unable to provide adequate security services. But outsourcing security to private companies risks re-instating the racialized violence of ‘protection’ within the security domain. If the private security industry were to increase further in the United States, racist practices and biases run the risk of being preserved, carried over from the police state to the market-driven security apparatus. South Africa is one such cautionary tale of security outsourcing.  

As the eminent German sociologist Max Weber made clear in his political writings, the state is the only entity that “lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate violence.”[5] If this is not the case, the state runs the risk of ceding authority to non-state enterprises, such as private security firms. When South Africa transitioned from an apartheid state, the new, democratically-elected government was woefully under-resourced. Moreover, the public’s trust in the police was at an all-time low. The police had been a primary perpetrator of apartheid-era violence, and now those same officers were expected to protect the very citizens they had systemically hurt previously.[6] Although the scale and magnitude of apartheid-era violence is often perceived as being in a league of its own, it is important to remember that Western countries share an equally violent history of racism. Many Western countries — among them the United States, Great Britain, and France — have engaged in a centuries-long system of racial oppression through colonialism and slavery. Today, systemic racism persists through institutions such as the police. For instance, of the 1,000 people killed by police between 2013 and 2019 in the United States, approximately one-third were Black, despite Black people making up only 13% of the population.[7]In addition, public trust in the country’s police has been marred by extreme cases of violence, making the situation in the US an even closer parallel to South Africa’s apartheid-era context.

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South Africa was not always destined to be dominated by private security. When Nelson Mandela assumed power in 1994, he was determined to revamp the economy through a bottom-up approach. This welfare-oriented strategy, called the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP), mirrors a left-leaning policy that many police abolition activists would support: grassroots funding for community safety initiatives, public healthcare, and greater public education.[9] This program targeted security at its roots by confronting socioeconomic inequality. However, the country’s funding dried up. Foreign investors scoffed at the progressive initiative, insisting that neoliberalism and top-down economic strategy was the only way to go. Eventually, Mandela’s administration conceded, abandoning the RDP for a neoliberal macroeconomic program called the Growth, Economic, and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy.[10] GEAR promoted the marketization of public services, such as private security, making this economic program the backbone of the country’s upwards trend in privatization. And in the countries that should have the greatest concern regarding the privatization of security — such as the United States — this sort of neoliberal policy has been the foundation of their economies for decades. 

When Mandela accepted the private security industry’s stronghold on the country’s security apparatus, he pushed his administration to develop a system of regulation. Like South Africa’s path-breaking Truth and Reconciliation Commission a few years prior, the nascent democracy once again pioneered a democratic institution by creating the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSIRA).[11] The PSIRA manages the private security industry as a business, keeping tabs on officers and companies with the clinical exactitude of an accountant. Although the PSIRA has admittedly been subject to criticism for its lack of regulatory teeth, it still remains an achievement as it monitors one of the greatest private security industries in the world. In its establishment, the South African government at least acknowledged a problem. Meanwhile, in Western countries today, there has been little more than a cursory nod to the industry’s existence.  

The role of private security in South Africa reached a fever pitch when the police service began leaning on the industry’s companies to bolster their own capacity in the years following GEAR’s installment. In recent years, these public-private partnerships have grown, where the services either work together, or the police hire private security companies to protect their precincts and supplement patrolling capabilities. For instance, between 2005 and 2006, the South African police spent close to ZAR100 million ($6.5 million USD) paying private security companies to protect them. This trend can be viewed as self-cannibalizing: the police service’s outsourcing leads to a perpetual cycle in the corrosion of trust between the public and the police. If the police force distrusts their own capabilities to protect themselves, why should South Africans trust the police to protect them

Despite the South African public’s general acceptance of the private security industry, the last five years have marked a sour shift in their reception of security outsourcing. One event that catalyzed the shift came days before Christmas in 2018. Private security guards were ordered by local residents to remove “rowdy” Black beachgoers from the posh Clifton Beach in Cape Town. Despite having no jurisdiction over the area, the security guards’ formal uniforms and air of authority made the group of friends comply.[12] Given that police officers do not have the authority to remove people from the beach, this was especially outside of the private security force’s purview. A group of activists gathered on the same beach only one week later in protest. They slaughtered a sheep on the sand, brandishing it with a sign reading “Reclaim Clifton Beaches.”[13] This moment marked a turning point: South Africans have begun to distrust private security too. 

As some Western countries are forced to confront mounting distrust in the police and demands for defunding, it is critical that states remain proactive in addressing the role of privatization in the security apparatus before they cede the “monopoly of violence” to private entities. The public-police relationship in many countries is broken, but outsourcing runs the risk of concretizing similar concerns of racism and aggression through private means. And without adequate regulation, the private security industry could pose a significant problem for Western societies in years to come. In order to ensure a more equitable and peaceful future, activists in the United States, Great Britain, and France must employ a two-pronged approach in fighting police brutality: demanding reform in the public police force while proactively advocating for adequate regulation of the private sector. 

[1] Perrigo, Billy and Mélissa Godin. “Racism is Surging in Germany. Tens of Thousands Are Taking to the Streets to Call for Justice.” June 11, 2020.

[2] Civis Analytics, “Public Opinion Data on Black Lives Matter Police Reform,” June 19, 2020. Accessed:

[3] Salingue, Julien. “Abolish the Police in France?” July 17, 2020. And Elliott-Cooper, Adam. “Defund the Police is Not Nonsense. Here’s What it Really Means.” July 2, 2020.

[4] Small Arms Survey. (2011). Small Arms Survey 2011: States of security, 106. Retrieved from

[5] Max Weber, Peter Lassman, and Ronald Speirs, Weber: Political Writings, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994): 310. 

[6] Sabelo Gumedze, “Regulating the Private Security Sector in South Africa,” Social Justice 34, no. 3 (2007): 198. 

[7] “National Trends,” Mapping Police Violence (2019). Accessed

[8] Small Arms Survey. (2011). Small Arms Survey 2011: States of security, 106. Retrieved from

[9] S. J. Mosala, J. C. M. Venter, and E. G. Bain, “South Africa’s Economic Transformation since 1994: What Influence Has the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) Had?,” The Review of Black Political Economy 44, no. 3–4 (January 2017): 327–40,

[10] Mark Shaw and Clifford Shearing, “Reshaping Security: An Examination of the Governance of Security in South Africa,” African Security Review 7, no. 3 (January 1998): 9.

[11] Private Security Industry Regulation Act, Republic of South Africa (2001): 11. 

[12] Rebecca Davis, “As SA Policing Fails, Private Security Steps In — But at a Cost,” Daily Maverick (South Africa), January 15, 2019. 

[13] Committee to begin inquiry into Clifton beach incidentCape Times (South Africa). February 04, 2019 Monday.