THE government spends tens of millions of rand on private security and there are very few police stations across the country that are not protected by such companies, according to replies to parliamentary questions.

Many of these companies have foreign ownership. Now, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa has brought amendments to the Private Security Industry Regulation Act and one of its key provisions is to limit the extent of foreign ownership of private security companies in SA.

The limit in the bill is set at 51% of the ownership and control of security companies being in South African hands, but it does grant the minister the power to vary the percentage in certain cases if it is in the security interests of the country.

Many home owners could be affected by this as there is some significant foreign investment in the industry, not the least of it being in the industry giants ADT, Chubb and G4S.

Millions of ordinary South Africans rely on private security companies for their personal safety and the security of their homes and possessions, spending billions every year.

The sheer size of the private security industry is staggering - there are more than a million security officers in the country working for a wide variety of companies. Most of these officers are armed, as most security companies offer an armed-response service to their clients.

In terms of the proposed changes, companies would have five years to comply with the new provisions and no new security service provider will be granted registration if 51% of the ownership and control is not held by South African citizens.

Mr Mthethwa insists that foreign-owned security companies are a threat to the national security. He has pointed out a number of times that there are more security officials in the country than there are police and soldiers combined.

His clear implication is that the industry both outnumbers state security officers and, he believes, outguns them.

But being outnumbered and outgunned assumes that there is a central control point for the industry which could have them acting in concert. That, of course, does not exist as the companies compete for business.

It is not the first time that the government led by the African National Congress has tried to limit foreign ownership of security companies. In 2001, the late Steve Tshwete, then safety and security minister, tried to outlaw it completely but backed off when it threatened to become a major diplomatic row between SA, the US and the UK.

An attorney for the Private Security Industry Alliance (PSIA), Martin Hood, has complained that Mr Mthethwa has failed to consult the industry in the drafting of the amendment bill. He says Mr Mthethwa had informed the industry that it would have the opportunity to make submissions when the bill came before Parliament.

Mr Hood says a request for consultation received the reply from Mr Mthethwa that he had referred the matter to the national commissioner of police.

"Clearly, the minister is not only fudging responsibility for this issue, but he is being downright dishonest.

"The industry is incensed about these proposals and even more incensed about the fact that the minister is not prepared to stand up, take responsibility and engage the industry.

"The relationship between the minister and the industry is perilously close to a breakdown," Mr Hood says.

Police ministry spokesman Zweli Mnisi says: "Our doors are open for any stakeholder who has a meaningful contribution to make. Last year, the minister addressed their (security companies) conference where, among others, he urged them to contribute to the fight against crime through their expertise and programmes. In terms of the allegations that we have not complied with constitutional imperatives, that is incorrect.

"When any legislation is passed, there are clear processes that are adhered to. First, the draft would go through the justice, crime-prevention and security cluster, then (be) tabled before Cabinet, (and) from there onwards taken to Parliament. Thereafter comes the public and stakeholder consultative process, which would include associations such as the PSIA," Mr Mnisi says.

"There is nothing strange about this protocol in terms of legislation processes as it has been adopted over the years."

It seems clear that the ministry is intent on proceeding with the amendments. The degree to which Parliament will heed any submissions made to it and change the bill remains to be seen. If enacted in its present form, the chances of a court challenge are remarkably good.

hartleyw@bdfm.co.za