DIMINUTIVE but deadly, Ellen Monaledi is one of the secret weapons fielded by Montecasino in its fight against crime. For most of the time, Monaledi watches a bank of closed-circuit TV screens showing the action in the gambling rooms, shops and restaurants. Occasionally she strolls around the floor, watching for odd behaviour that lets her mark somebody as a criminal even before they’ve committed the act.
I shift in my seat, wondering how she’s secretly assessing me as I ask probing questions and take notes. Better not ask for too much detail, I think, in case she suspects I’m plotting to raid the tills or turn into a cardsharp.
Monaledi is a surveillance specialist investigator at Montecasino and the first black woman to reach that position in the parent company, Tsogo Sun.
Her job includes investigating serious incidents and crimes, interviewing suspects and taking pre-emptive measures to prevent criminal activities. Among the most common crimes are gamblers slyly stealing each other’s chips, stealing money from the machines, or bar staff stealing from the takings. There are only one or two incidents a week, she says, and they very rarely involve the staff as each employee takes a lie detector test before they are hired. "That makes sure we don’t employ any tsotsis. We don’t need criminals at a casino."
Monaledi was born in a small village near Hammanskraal in Gauteng and was a tomboy. She’s a character of contradictions, describing herself as "a rough somebody" yet easy going. She enjoyed the rough and tumble of boys’ games and from an early age had a peculiar hankering to get a gun.
"I wasn’t interested in playing with dolls. I wanted to do something boyish. My uncle used to say we must not let other people take advantage of us, so it’s in the blood. After matric, I wanted to be a police officer and carry a gun. But I realised if I had a firearm I’d end up in jail because the way I was naughty I’d just shoot."
She was rejected by the police for being too short and applied instead for a job as a security gaming officer when the Carousel Casino was opening in 1991. Thankfully, none of her positions have seen her packing a gun, but Monaledi has such a no-nonsense attitude that she’s intimidating even without one.
I know if she was interviewing me, rather than the other way around, I’d be ’fessing up. "I get what I want to know," she says.
Unless the toughness is an act, her contradiction of character has made her able to get on with people and win promotions in a field dominated by men, in a profession where you have to seem even tougher than the men just to be considered their equal.
When I ask if it is still a male-dominated industry she says: "It was, but now I’m here. We even have pink dockets now."
Yet she clearly remembers one incident when she was the one who was quaking.
"When someone commits a crime and they’re a big person and they look at me and I’m a small person, I know I need to get back-up when I interview the suspect. With one man, I felt intimidated as a woman when I looked in his eyes."
After the police rejected her for being too short, the recruiters at Carousel Casino were more concerned about her age. They told her to go back to school because she looked so young, so she whipped out her identity document to prove her age. Being judged by her appearance has sharpened her edges, making her more determined to succeed and prove her abilities are important, not her physical appearance.
Monaledi didn’t let the fact that she had only a matric and no experience put her off applying to work in security. "I thought, ‘I can do this, let’s see.’ When we went for training, I was chosen as the commander as we were doing parades. I thought, ‘No problem, I’ll do it.’"
Over the years, she has taken several training courses, and the variety of training available shows just what an enormous industry security is in South Africa. She has taken courses in security supervision, CCTV surveillance skills, tables and slots gaming, cash-desk management and money-laundering control. She also completed a Unisa course on anticorruption and commercial crime investigation.
Some of the courses taught her to watch and analyse behaviour and body language: "Suspicious movements and actions of someone who wants to steal will tell you before they even do it."
When she spots a potential suspect, she alerts security staff on the floor to shadow them; they will ask the suspect to accompany them to an interview room.
Monaledi joined Montecasino in 2009 and loves the job, especially the interaction with restaurant managers or shop staff when she is investigating an incident.
"The camera work is a bit boring, but it’s nice because you see everything that other people don’t see. When I walk into a mall now, what goes through my head is that somebody is watching me, because that’s what we do. We watch everybody."
She is married with two daughters. Her no-nonsense attitude means she doesn’t see any conflict between having a career and having a family.
"You have to make sure at work you do the work and at home you have to be the mother and wife." The only thing that bothers her husband is when she is called back to work at night because an incident has occurred. "My husband knows I love this position and I was working in a casino when we met."
Occasionally she has a little flutter herself, even though as a casino professional she knows the odds are stacked against the punters.
"We’re not allowed to gamble at any of the group’s casinos, that’s against procedure. Obviously I’m not going to take my bank cards and gamble but if I’m going for fun, I’d gamble a maximum of R500."
Her ambition is to become the surveillance manager of a casino and she is happy to uproot the family if she has to switch locations.
"I want to explore," she says, but she wouldn’t take a job in a shopping mall or any other less interesting venue. "Working in a casino is different from working in any other place. If you go out of this industry you always come back."
She believes — or at least hopes — that her daughters will have to fight less than she did to make their mark in life.
"I told them to take it from their mother, and my first-born is more tough than me, she’s not scared of anything. She’s studying health and safety at Unisa, and that’s also a very male-dominated area. You have to work hard and study hard to be recognised as an equal, but the regulations in South Africa do give women an advantage by requiring more women to be in top positions."
When our conversation ends and I’m walking to the car park, I give a little wave to the cameras. I know they’re watching me.