Sun, Mar 13, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Crime a big business in South Africa

PROTECTION The billion-dollar anti-theft industry has made a name for itself in the crime-ridden nation as wealthy South Africans seek security from criminals

DPA , Johannesburg

Flame-throwers under the car, handbags with electrically charged traps and exploding number plates are all part of the modern South African property owner's arsenal in the eternal battle against crime.

South African inventors have gained a global reputation for effective, if often bizarre, deterrents to criminals. Their wares have just been shown at the Securex trade exhibition in the country's crime capital, Johannesburg.

"Q," James Bond's gadget supplier, would have been astounded at the array of equipment that has come onto the market in response to government efforts to tighten up on the use of firearms.

One of the latest hits is a paintball gun that fires pepper spray under pressure. The cumbersome guns are generally used for war games in which opponents are shot with a paintball to show they have been put out of action.

"Our solution is much easier to use," says Byron Hove, pointing to the metal boxes made by his company Changing Tides. They contain cartridges that can be detonated by remote control, suggesting to any intruder that he or she is coming under fire.

"They can be placed in any tree and confuse anyone breaking in, who thinks someone is shooting at him from behind," Hove says.

The police were impressed by another of his inventions aimed at scaring off intruders rather than maiming or killing them: a padlock that gives off a loud bang when it is fiddled with.

A sensor that picks up vibrations triggers a charge inside the lock. "It is not the strongest lock on the market, but it works in an intelligent fashion," Hove says with a laugh. "It's not always the strongest that win."

Other gadgets on show at Securex were miniature CCTV cameras, infrared sensors, movement sensors, biometric controls at gates using finger pressure and lasers. These hi-tech tools that used to be 007's preserve are now standard for wealthy South Africans.

Precise figures are hard to come by, but sector insiders believe that up to 270,000 people could be involved in providing security at a cost to the economy of more than US$2 billion.

Rosemary Cowan of the South African Security Association comments that the companies involved are by their very nature discreet about their activities.

There have long been more privately employed security guards than there are police offices, with around 5,000 different companies competing in this lucrative sector.

Their activities range from providing an old-fashioned night watchman, through tracking cars by satellite or guarding the entrances to gated residential complexes protecting the well-off from the great mass of poor people outside.

Private security companies are providing the services that the official security services cannot. And their clientele is by no means solely white any more. The rising black middle class is vulnerable too.

Even the South African police have employed private security personnel to protect its headquarters.

Large companies in centers like Johannesburg are paying for the senior management -- along with their families -- to be protected.

This ranges from providing bodyguards and armor-plated limousines to ensuring that their homes lie in sealed suburbs, where anyone entering has to pass a security gate.

There has been intense public debate about this "new kind of apartheid" which allows the rich to live entirely apart from the poor, but gated complexes are booming.

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