Spring 2005

Security logos

Sean O’Toole
Common knowledge

A startling array of incongruous motifs and icons are used by private security companies in South Africa

The old neighbourhood doesn’t look like it used to. There is more to this observation than sentimental gush. Of course it doesn’t look the same. Legislated apartheid is dead. Nelson Mandela has retired from active political life. Things in South Africa have quite simply and efficiently moved along. This is not to say that the country’s democratic progress is not marked (and marred) by a highly visual angst.

In bucolic suburban neighbourhoods on the urban periphery, electric fencing tempts one to find whether it will shock; dogs, typically expensive German breeds, bark maniacally; and plastic boards affixed to high perimeter walls tell one that the homes in the background are protected by private security.

There are reputedly some 4500 private security companies in South Africa, collectively employing half a million security guards. Once regarded as a retirement hobby for apartheid-era military personnel, the industry has in recent years morphed into a highly professional business generating an annual turnover approaching £1.6 billion. Widespread crime explains its existence, while President Mbeki’s tight-lipped approach to crime reporting stimulates the culture of fear on which the industry thrives.

Visually, these security companies use a startling array of incongruous motifs and icons to assert their ersatz presence: snakes, Trojan horses, tigers, dragons, eagles – even the Queen’s Guard. Very often the core visual element has no basis in the experience of the African continent, resulting in a visual litter that is variously delightful, menacing and occasionally just plain weird.

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