Johannesburg - Poor working conditions and meagre salaries in a highly dangerous environment are major contributors that have pushed some cash-in-transit guards to collude with gangs. Security guards have lifted the lid on what they call a thankless job, despite putting their lives on the line to safeguard the vast sums of money that are transported daily.

The guards said cash-in-transit heists were highly violent and dangerous experiences that left the survivors of these attacks traumatised and in need of professional counselling.

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They said that despite the ever-present risk, an average guard who works for one of the top three cash-in-transit companies earns around R11000 a month, and has basic gun-handling skills. He used the outdated Norinco handgun that can only shoot up to eight rounds at a time, compared to the high-calibre automatic rifles used by robbers, which can spit up to 38 rounds at a time, he pointed out.

The Star interviewed three guards separately and they put the blame for the recent upsurge in heists on their employers for subjecting them to terrible working conditions.

“I was an ordinary security guard in the guarding division before I joined the cash-in-transit industry eight years ago," said one guard.

"I had to undergo a three-week course in advanced gun-handling and driving, including doing other tactical training. But that training is not utilised anymore, and companies just hire anybody with a basic security certificate to work in the cash-in-transit industry. Some of them have never fired a gun. How are they expected to be effective during a violent robbery?” he asked.

“When we express our concern, the same security (personnel in the guarding division) say we are trying to block them from accessing employment in the cash-in-transit industry. Our work is high risk and thankless. I don’t blame our colleagues for falling for thugs who bribe them to get inside information,” he added.

Compounding their lack of resources, the guards are also subjected to rigorous interrogation by police and company investigators after a robbery. During this period they are also barred from work and receive only a portion of their salaries.

“We become the first suspects and have to undergo a lie-detector test. While barred from work, we fall behind with our debt payments,” another guard said.

An insider at the Hawks’ National Bureau for Illegal Firearm Control and Priority Violent Crime recently told The Star that the average cash-in-transit robber was far more advanced in handling a heavy-calibre firearm than a police officer and a cash-in-transit guard combined.

“It’s in the way they carry their assault rifles when they execute these crimes. They carry them in a certain way that even an ordinary police officer doesn't. They are very professional and well trained and use tactics that can only be taught in the army,” the officer said they had observed.

The latest figures from the SA Banking Risk Information Centre show that 152 heists were reported countrywide from January 1 to date, which resulted in 11 fatalities and 70 injuries. Gauteng accounts for 58 robberies, followed by Mpumalanga with 20 and the Eastern Cape on 19.

A police officer was involved in at least 70% of these crimes by either making dockets disappear or taking part in the actual robbery. The spike has caused some guards to resort to uncharacteristic ways seeking divine protection to survive so that they can feed their families.

Every morning before he puts on his armoured uniform, * Thapelo, a cash-in-transit guard, says a prayer while he ties a sacred red and blue string around his waist. Although a staunch Christian, Thapelo believes the string, which he recently got from a traditional healer, will protect him against the gunmen's bullets.

“I’ve lost colleagues who had more faith in God than me. They either died or got injured in the line of duty. I don’t want to be like them. I have a young family who still need me. I would rather die knowing that I’ve tried every form of protection I could get to survive in my job,” Thapelo said.

The Federation of Unions of SA and the Motor Transport Workers’ Union are planning a nationwide strike on Monday in the hope of meeting with employers to raise their concerns, which include the provision of medical aid and counselling, and upgrading of the cash vans. This is to be followed by a special meeting between the National Assembly portfolio committee on police and all cash-in-transit stakeholders.

But until a solution is found, Thapelo vowed to continue with his morning ritual. “I’m not convinced the companies in this industry are willing to put our lives before their profits. For many years we have been complaining about the same things,” he said.

However, the employers are also concerned about the surge in cash heists and held a panel discussion in Sandton last week that sought to stabilise the industry. Cash Connect chief executive Richard Phillips called on the government to make cash-in-transit robberies a priority crime.

Speaking on behalf of SBV, Fidelity and G4S, Wendy Hardy said all companies in their industry offered counselling, overtime and medical aid, and that some companies had invested in technology in their vehicles, providing air and land support.

But she conceded that training was an important part of transporting cash and that each company followed a specific specialised curriculum.

* Not his real name

The Star