Are car guards a form of charity?

In South Africa we have an interesting phenomenon: car guards. These are people who stand in parking lots and parking spaces generally, typically wearing a neon vest, “looking after” your car. Typically they receive (at least part of their) income as donations from the motorists whose cars they have kept safe.  I have encountered car guards for years and I realised I actually know little about them.

I suspect international readers may find this concept hard to understand and I refer you to this comical video by a South African comedy duo.  Despite the comedic element, the portrayal is fairly accurate. As in this video, car guards are almost always male, but unlike in the video, they are also almost always black.

Many car guards are hired by the owners of the premises. I am not sure of how much protection they actually provide. I have never heard of a car guard actually stopping or attempting to stop a theft.  That does not mean, however, that car guards do not prevent attempts – like visible policing they may make thefts less likely. For the most part, however, their role seems to be to help motorists get into and out of tricky parking spots. These men are not security guards – they are not armed and I suspect most are not trained to deal with proper criminals.

Many “car guards”, I suspect, take advantage of the fact that anyone with a neon vest has a legitimate claim as guarding any otherwise unattended parking facility. Car guards have become so ingrained in daily lives that we hardly even think about paying them. Much like providing a tip to a waitron, it has been customary and we feel guilty if we shirk this duty.

In so far as car guards are not actually providing a useful service, they effectively represent a form of charity, a means of creating employment not unlike asking people to dig holes and fill them up again. This is probably not entirely fair and we must consider that South Africa sits with a glut of unskilled labour that is not being put to productive use (our youth unemployment rate is notoriously high). Car guards represent one way of giving an income, one that is earned, at least in some measure, to a portion of our unskilled labour force.

The question of whether this is good or bad is moot. It is certainly better than having a larger supply of beggars. The fact that this country has no better way of employing much of its population is the problem.  It’s also probably true that the South African public has come to expect car guards: we want them there.

I leave you with some questions. If you have something to say about any of them, please leave a comment:

  1. Do you know of any research on whether car guards do reduce car thefts?
  2. Do you feel safer with a car guard nearby?
  3. Have you heard of a car guard preventing a theft?
  4. How do you feel about paying car guards?
  5. Do you think there are more “productive” means employing a larger part of our population?

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  1. #1 by Alex Conway on 06/05/2015 - 5:09 pm

    Surprised you didn’t touch on the emotional blackmail / ‘protection money’ (in the Mafia extortion sense) aspect of car guards. I was out in town recently and a friend nervously said he had to run to his car and I asked him why (if it’s to put something down, just use the coat check) and he sheepishly admitted he told the carguard he’d pay him at the end of the night and was worried the carguard would scratch his car if he wasn’t there to pay him when the carguard went ‘off duty’ (for lack of a better phrasing). That strikes me as a sort of intimidation / emotional blackmail backed up by fear that cannot be accepted as ‘normal’ and certainly isn’t worth the perceived ‘reduction in car theft’ (carguards may increase theft for example I have a friend whose car got broken into by the carguard ‘watching his car’ and was luckily captured on a surveillance camera)

    On the other hand, I tend to go to the same places and over the years have gotten to know some carguards. I rarely give carguards money but I talk to them and explain that if I gave every carguard R5 every time I park somewhere, I’d be spending more on carguards than rent… and usually they’re chilled with the ‘I can’t afford to give you money because I’m a broke student’ argument but I have bought some of the carguards I know coffee / food before and chatted to them for a few minutes and the fact of the matter is that a lot of them simply have no alternatives. For example one of them has a degree in marine engineering but is a refugee from Angola and doesn’t speak very good English and obviously doesn’t have the necessary papers and so it’s nearly impossible for him to get a job. He says he’s saving up his carguard money to pay for a conversion course so he can work here but really being a carguard is the only ‘job’ that someone can do without any requirements whatsoever. What’s sad is he seemed really bright (through his broken English) and though he may have been lying, I believe him when he says he was a respectable ‘middle class’ professional in Angola before he had to flee because of conflict and political instability. What’s disconcerting is I’ve caught myself on numerous occasions judging carguards as stupid or leeches or thugs but their English is a hell of a lot better than my French and I don’t know what I’d do if I had to flee to another country with no work permits and a different language. Important to keep in mind that sometimes there’s a back-story and no alternatives.

    That seems like the real question: what’s the alternative?

    Perhaps a merit-based hiring procedure rather than a credentials-based hiring procedure would have enabled our carguard friend to get a job as a marine engineer straight away instead of needing to save up to pay for some institution to credentialize him. That’s a whole different debate and you obviously need to be sure that he can actually do the job – and there are elements of needing to learn things specific to South Africa – but hiring decisions should be made on merit and we need to reduce the friction to allocating skills to jobs. I’m hopeful that technology will improve these inefficiencies and hopefully at least get us to the point where foreigners with skills can be hired based on those skills and not on some piece of paper. This still leaves the question of whether we should be giving work to foreigners at all (most carguards are refugees) when so many locals are out of work but that’s deeper, longer question and I’m rambling already 🙂

    To your question of a more productive means of employing a larger part of our population: I haven’t given this tooooo much thought but I suspect technology may come to the rescue here too. I’m not sure if you’ve come across Amazon ‘Mechanical Turk’ that lets anyone sign up to perform simple menial tasks and earn small amounts e.g. $0.10 per task which adds up to a decent hourly wage. These are usually tasks that humans are very good at but computers are not e.g. identifying the objects in a photo (the best deep learning methods at Google will get simple things wrong like saying that a Kettle is actually a cat whereas no 2 year old would get that wrong) Currently this is housewives sitting earning extra cash on their computers but I can imagine something like a network of ATM style machines in townships etc. that people can perform ‘menial’ labour such as data cleaning etc (with robust checks e.g. have 2 people at different locations do the task and check them against each other). There are some interesting overlays on this like being able to allocate high performers here as a sort of tiered ‘flexible’ workforce (in the same way as you can spin up Amazon EC2 nodes in a cluster to do distributed computing).

    Interested to hear your thoughts on this

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